Tag Archives: W.E.B. Du Bois

Harlem, Sugar Hill and the unmarked homes of legends

There is a wonderful and all-too short video of Faith Ringgold talking about Harlem’s Sugar Hill, and the many people who lived there on the New York Times website from 2010. This comes just above a map that shows building by building where some of the people I admire most once lived.

I wish I had found this earlier. I love hunting down the homes of people who have inspired me, because it always takes you into residential streets, among the everyday places of the city that as a tourist you never see. It also allows you a slightly different glimpse of the person  themselves — after all, I believe places shape us just as we shape places. Of course, a lot has changed in Harlem since these incredible days. There is so much nostalgia not for segregation, but for these spaces that concentrated community in such a way. Look at all of the people who lived only a few blocks from each other.

We did, however, know to find 409 and 555 Edgecombe. But the best site I found (also post-visit), was from the NY architecture site from a report prepared by Elisa Urbanelli, Landmarks Consultant (excerpted here, there is another good history of sugar Hill found in the docs establishing Sugar Hill as a historic district, much of it reintegrated into  the arguing documents to extend the Sugar Hill historic district to include Hamilton Heights).

The Ebony article characterized Sugar Hill society and the residents of 409 and 555 with the observation that “Harlem’s most talked-about men and women in law, sports, civil liberties, music, medicine, painting, business, and literature live on Sugar Hill.” Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. presented a portrait of the Hill’s residential grandeur in 1935:

On Sugar Hill…Harlem’s would-be ‘sassiety’ goes to town. ‘Midst panelled walls, parquet floors, electric refrigeration, colored tile baths, luxurious lobbies, elevators and doormen resplendent in uniforms, they cavort and disport themselves in what is called the best ofay manner.”

There were racketeers and gamblers who called the Hill home, living side by side with judges, scholars, and writers. In the 1940s Ebony reported that Sugar Hill incomes ranged from $3,000 to $7,000 per annum, most being within the upper half of wages in the United States, yet also estimated that one-quarter of Hill dwellers had to take in boarders and make other sacrifices in order to meet expenses. Rents in Harlem were generally high, but in Sugar Hill they were even higher. At 409, tenants paid from fifty to ninety-eight dollars per month, while at 555 Edgecombe, two-and-one-half rooms rented for sixty-six dollars and five rooms for eighty-seven dollars. As one observer commented, “…Harlem prices leave little for luxurious living. The main difference between those on Sugar Hill and those in the slums is the knowledge of where their next meal is coming form and, at night, a spaciousness which helps erase the memory of a Jim Crow day.”

There’s a link to http://www.hometoharlem.com/ at the end of this, but it connects to nothing. I honestly do not know why I didn’t become a landmarks consultant. Best. Job. Ever.

But to return to who actually lived here — I’ve pieced this together from multiple sources, which I find astonishing. There is also an absence of plaques or markers, though it was nice to see a number of streets named after the famous people who had lived on them.

363 Edgecombe is where Faith Ringgold herself lived — I was hoping to see her quilt at The Studio in Harlem, but much of it was closed in preparation for new exhibits. Still.

365 Edgecombe – Cecilia Hodges

375 Edgecombe – Roy Eaton

377 Edgecombe – Sonny Rollins

381 Edgecombe – Joe Lewis

409 Edgecombe: Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois!), Aaron Douglas, William Stanley Braithwaite, Clarence Cameron White, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Jimmy Lunceford (conductor at the Cotton Club), Dr May Chinn.

I remember from Walter White’s autobiography that he shared a building with Du Bois, it’s actually hard to imagine the two of them and Roy Wilkins occasionally meeting in the lobby. Back to Elisa Urbanelli:

No. 409 Edgecombe was certainly the most prestigious of addresses on Sugar Hill in the 1930s and ’40s. Counted among the residents of this very special enclave were people of national and international significance. As one who grew up at 409, Arnold Braithwaite eloquently explains, “…nowhere in New York City, and perhaps the country, will you find any other apartment building, whose halls and suites echo with the ghosts, as it were, of distinguished men and women, many of international repute, who were forced to over come the obstacles of poverty, for most; of pernicious racism, for all.”

As Ebony stated in the mid-1940s, “legend, only slightly exaggerated, says bombing 409 would wipe out Negro leadership for the next 20 years.” Indeed, residents have included such notable African-American luminaries as scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois; former N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White; White’s successor, Roy Wilkins; and Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel to the same esteemed organization and later became the first African-American Justice on the U.S.Supreme Court. They were joined by New York State Assemblyman William Andrews, Assistant Attorney General of New York State Harry G. Bragg, and Charles Toney, a municipal judge, as well as others who had crossed the racial barrier into the fields of politics and law. Residents involved in the arts included renowned poet, critic, and literary anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite; Aaron Douglas, the famed painter and illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance and head of the art department of Fisk University; Luckey Roberts and Jimmie Lunceford,, popular jazz musicians; actor and singer Jules Bledsoe; and classical composer Clarence Cameron White. Another long-time resident, prominent physician Dr. May Edward Chinn, had an office at the ground story and lived upstairs. (For more information about these and other tenants of 409, see the Appends.)

What it looks like now? Sadly with scaffolding — it felt like almost every building we hoped to see had scaffolding:

New York

New York

A view beyond to see how it sits on this street, looking down Edgecombe towards the more modest buildings (but still Sugar Hill):

New York

An atmospheric view down the backside of this stretch of Edgecombe:

New York

And from here you can see all the way (looking up, it must be said) to 555 Edgecombe.

New York

555 Edgecombe

A 2010 New York Times piece lists Paul Robeson Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Lena Horne.

It left off that list Zora Neale Hurston. Wikipedia notes Kenneth Clarke (who wrote an amazing study of Harlem) but forgets his wife Mamie who was equally brilliant, Andy Kirk and Canada Lee. Joe Louis lived here a while too, he, Basie and Robeson are noted in the AIA Guide to New York City. The Lonely Planet adds Billy Strayhorn.

New York

New York

One of the few old pictures I was able to find:

Here is Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ up to Sugar Hill (though we took the C)

The loveliest thing of all is that musician Marjorie Eliot opens her room up in the building, inviting people into her living room on Sundays for live jazz.

The saddest thing — that the National Park Service listing for this historic building only lists Robeson. Which is fucking crazy.

I did find one lovely site — While We Are Still Here — that is displaying information about 409 and 555 Edgcombe Ave.

Mission
While We Are Still Here (WWSH) ensures that the “post-gentrification” community of Harlem and beyond will honor and find a meaningful connection to the legacy of African American achievement, and its paramount importance to world culture.

What we didn’t see?

749 St Nicholas Ave — Ralph Ellison

773 St Nicholas Ave — C. Luckeyth (lucky) Roberts

But here’s the view down St Nicholas Ave:

New York

Harlem though…Harlem is so much more than this of course. We Went to the Schomberg Library, I remember Ella Baker describing coming out of the subway here, staying in the Y.

New York - Harlem

New York - Harlem

Saw The Studio, saw the Apollo, walked past this:

New York - Harlem

New York - Harlem

New York - Harlem

Walked down some of these streets of the famous brownstones I have read so much about (how can I see these the same after reading Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones?)

New York - Harlem

Found 267 W 136th St, a rooming house where almost everyone from the Harlem Renaissance stayed: Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett and others, and closely connected with Fire! magazine.

Nothing here either to note the brilliance these walls have contained.

New York - Harlem

We saw memories of Marcus Garvey:

New York - Harlem

A bit of East Harlem (SO not enough), memorialised in a Tito Puento street sign:

There is so much more we didn’t see here of course. So much left to see, I should say.

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The Scholar Denied: Aldon Morris on W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois The Scholar DeniedI read this not long after seeing Aldon Morris himself talking about both Du Bois and The Scholar Denied, a wonderful evening. He gave us a taste then of his background, what brought him to this project. In reading the book, this is the autobiographical phrase that stuck with me:

I am a member of what sociologist and freedom fighter Joyce Ladner coined the “Emmett Till Generation,” blacks traumatized by by the lynching, which left a lasting imprint. (x)

#BLM show what little distance we have come. Also these shared questions, the way he was always moved by social movement:

What stirred in the souls of black people to cause them to be swept into the vortex of a powerful social movement? What changed in these people who had been taught to obey racists or face the awful consequences? Would they be able to overthrow Jim Crow? I was consumed with issues social scientists would come to conceptualize as human agency and the ways oppressed people could use it to generate change. (xi)

This is what social movement studies should be asking, no? Instead they have such a different feeling and I think much of that is driven by the same dynamics that led to Du Bois being marginalised, to the extent that Morris found him entirely absent from his sociology classes (as did I in undergrad):

My purpose in writing The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of American Sociology is an ambitious one, namely, to shift our perspective on the founding, a hundred years ago, of one of the social sciences in America. …  I show that such intellectual schools are not merely the products of intellectual networks and original, meritorious ideas but are deeply entangled with power, ruling ideologies, and economics. … I lay bare the racism and power of dominant whites responsible for suppressing a seminal body of social scientific thought. (xvi-xvii)

And in spite of all this, such a body of work may still flourish. Because this flourishing is demonstrated here as well. This is a book of inspiration as much as anything, and always a book belonging to movement. You can see it in the acknowledgment that Du Bois was not an isolated genius, but flourished in institutions — there’s Du Bois kicking it in Germany where he was treated as an equal, studying under Weber himself and his later friendship with Boas who helped him see for the first time the greatness of African civilization — as well as in collaboration with black (and some white) intellectuals in Atlanta: Monroe Work, Richard R. Wright Jr, George Edmund Haynes. Two women were also instrumental in the Atlanta School, Lucy Craft Laney and Mary White Ovington. It was an uphill battle, however, and not just against white racism.

The Scholar Denied documents clearly the ways Booker T Washington and Robert E Park ‘conspired to obstruct and silence Du Bois politically, and how their actions imperiled Du Bois’s influence as a founder of American Sociology’ (xviii). The ways that Du Bois’s work was suppressed by scholars subscribing to white supremacy, ‘because it concluded that there were no scientific grounds on which to justify racial oppression and because they could not view Du Bois as an exemplary scholar who pioneered scientific sociology.’ (4)

A note here on this use of the word scientific — I was always a bit conflicted about that because it rings of positivism, of ‘objectivity’ but this is not the sense in which wither Morris or Du Bois use it. It stands, rather, for critical study. Rigorous and scholarly investigation based on interviews and actual fieldwork (still revolutionary for the time really, even after Booth). Du Bois was one of the first to get out of the proverbial armchair.  Of course The Philadelphia Negro (1899) is the primary example…and hell yes it should be. What an impressive, incredible book. It attempted, as I have written before, to turn the whole white-crafted question of the ‘the negro problem’ on its head.

Because of stiff white resistance to black aspirations, Du Bois, at the beginning of the twentieth century, concluded that the major unasked question of whites regarding blacks was: How does it feel to be a problem? (7)

Oh Sociology

Sociology has gone on to some great things, but has a rather ugly past. I suppose even so they were no worse than Geography — and possibly better for all their multiple sins. Still, the 1st issues of the 1st American Sociological journal — The American Journal of Sociology, founded by Chicago sociologist Albion Small in 1904 — contained a lead article by Galton, father of eugenics, on (wait for it) ‘Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims’. This was no fluke or passing fad, the article was reprinted in the 1921 sociology textbook ‘Introduction to the Science of Sociology’ edited by Park and Burgess. So popular in curricula across the country it was known for decades as the “Green Bible”, it established sociology as an ‘abstract science’  (19, 138) and thus eugenics as a valid field of that study I suppose. But it helped define Du Bois right out of the field.

Park and Burgess drew upon Du Bois’s work, as almost certainly did the rest of the Chicago school, though they did not credit him. his voluminous papers were not included in these or other edited collections, not was he invited to key conferences of the field. All this despite the fact that Max Weber himself ’embraced Du Bois’s scholarship and declared him to be one of the greatest sociologists in America.’ (149)

Weber’s respect had much to do with his pioneering of methodologies, especially with The Philadelphia Negro. Interviews, participant observation, surveys, data crunching, spatial analysis. The manner in which Du Bois studied North AND South, urban AND rural and all over time and all rooted in their historical context because he saw all of this as deeply connected. Also Du Bois’s engagement with social problems and concerns that Weber also saw as important though it was eschewed by the Chicago school as unscientific and unobjective.

Upon returning to “‘nigger’-hating America,” Du Bois embraced his life’s work: the production of careful sociological studies of African Americans steeped in empirical data that could be used to discredit the dominant sociological and popular doctrine that blacks were forever stuck at the bottom of human civilizations because nature made them inferior. (22)

The Philadelphia Negro was written while an assistant instructor at UPenn — where Du Bois felt utterly marginalized as he was not allowed to teach white students. Morris quotes him writing:

It goes without saying that I did no instructing save once to pilot a pack of idiots through the Negro slum. (56)

After The Philadephia Negro‘s publication, Du Bois hoped to be able to establish a research program to study the black community. White universities refused to host such a program, white scholars refused to collaborate. So the scholar denied went down to Atlanta University, which segregated neither faculty nor its ‘sprinkling’ of white students. Du Bois and his students began quite an incredible project, collecting data on black urban life in Atlanta year by year, year after year. Their goal was to hold a conference at the end of each year to sift through it, analyse and publish it, maybe change the world with it…because they probed at its deep roots.

The Du Bois-Atlanta school of sociology was guided by a scholarly principle: sociological and economic factors were hypothesized to be the main causes of racial inequality… (58)

Du Bois created a ‘Laboratory in Sociology’ (75),  his goal was to do these yearly studies every year for 100 years…can you imagine? The wealth of information that would have generated. All this even as Jim Crow was ramping up. Although their work, just like The Philadelphia Negro, was officially ignored it clearly had an impact on the field (as did Jane Addams’ publication of the Hull House Maps and Papers in 1895). Yet it was The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920) that is cited as the 1st great empirical study of American sociology (68). A fairly incredible fact after reading Du Bois’s work, or looking at the reproductions of some of Du Bois and his students’ incredible hand-drawn and coloured charts (many of which can be seen here in this incredible collection on public domain review).

So it would be bad enough if it were just the Chicago School ignoring an uppity black scholar, but this story is so much more involved than that. I never liked Booker T,  I really hated Up From Slavery as much as I allowed myself to judge (because, you know, I haven’t all that much right to judge). But damn, Morris is right in this damning praise:

Just seven months after Douglas’s death, white Americans, and European powers involved in colonizing Africa received a wonderful gift of black leadership — Booker T. Washington. (9)

Washington preached that inequality was driven by the fundamental inequality of blacks themselves and a lack of black civilization. This was picked up and echoed by the Chicago school of sociology (12), because you know why (apart from its convenience?) I never knew Robert E. Park took a job at Tuskegee, as director of public relations and a ghostwriter for Booker T himself. Du Bois had rejected the position.

Bloody hell. The insult of such an offer.

So it becomes oh so clear where Park’s ideas are founded, how they were sustained in this view of blacks as rural, simple, safest away from cities and their temptations. Above all the necessity of extremely gradual (we’re talking centuries), rate of changing race relations. Of course Washington saw Du Bois and his colleagues proving full equality and demanding full rights as a threat and a challenge. Park joined him in this view, retaining an intense loyalty to Washington through the years after leaving Tuskegee, catapulted as he was into leadership at Chicago. His utter lack of qualification in comparison with Du Bois is painfully obvious. By 1905, Booker T was on the warpath, threatening Atalanta University and its funding if it continued down the path laid out by Du Bois (he wrote openly that Du Bois’s work at Atlanta University wished to destroy Tuskegee — extraordinary and vile). Funding did dry up at his word, though Du Bois managed to eke it out for another 10 years. This explains a lot I think, about the Chicago School.

The Chicago School

The Chicago school was guided by two major theoretical principles formulated mainly by Park. The first was that sociology was an objective science whose mission was to formulate natural laws determining human behavior. The second was a unique social Darwinism that combined evolutionary principles with social interaction analyses. (112)

There is so much packed into the book on the subject of Park’s opinions and writings that you can see threading through future scholarship like a malignant spirit. A call for objectivity, a ‘ridiculing of reform-oriented sociologists’ in a quest to uncover ‘universal social natural laws.’ (114) A belief in racial hierarchy, whites at top and blacks at bottom. Park drew on Simmel, whose student he had been, in theorizing basic social forms: competition, conflict, accommodation, assimilation. (115) He believed in ‘racial temperaments’ transmitted biologically and that blacks would be forever both culturally and biologically inferior (117). Terms used to describe them were ‘primitives, folk people, aliens, and savages‘ (119) despite the claim that they had lost all cultural ties during the middle passage.  Always an emphasis on blacks remaining rural and South as cities required ‘civilized’ persons to inhabit them. (120)

It’s awful reading — and recognizing — the litany.

Park wrote an utterly vile piece on ‘Negro’ music, describing how the songs show them to be sunny tempered and optimistic. He somehow managed to find in them no trace of Africa. He describes leading authority on Black spirituals to be a white Colonel who collected them from black soldiers. Madness.

But also bad scholarship. You can see the devastating impact of racist views on any shred of intellectual validity. I mean, as a scholar all he had to do to know better was read the incredibly well researched work of Du Bois.

Du Bois himself debunked and warned against all of it, particularly the use of natural sciences to understand society. He was able to see how it was being used to maintain white supremacy. I suppose it is small wonder that Washington and Park together worked to marginalise Du Bois’s contribution to sociology, ‘render [his] scholarship invisible’. (137)

Engaged Scholarship

There follows a discussion of Du Bois as engaged scholar, he would of course go on to play a pivotal role at the head of the NAACP and the publisher (editor, writer) of The Crisis. This could be found in households across the country, unlike, say possibly, The Phildelphia Negro.

Part of this is Morris’s exploration of the role of intellectual schools and the importance of networks in developing ‘greatness’. Here is where engaged scholarship comes to the fore — as Du Bois was excluded from white networks (funding, position, publication in certain journals or collections, invitations to conferences and etc) and given his refusal to accept black inferiority, he found his own way through:

He developed counterhegemonic networks and a counterhegemonic form of capital that have not been identified or analyzed in the literature. (187)

Morris describes this as ‘liberation capital’, donations of time and money that sustained a counterhegemonic institution and its research. This underlay the Du Bois – Atalanta school and its impressive body of research, showing that that:

Merton and Collins are right to argue that intellectual networks and scientific settings such as universities are crucial to producing excellent science, Yet networks and institutional theory err in the assumptions that great science can be produced only in elite institutions… (192)

And this is the achievement of the Du Bois-Atlanta school, a large measure of the inspiration alongside and in addition to the awesomeness of their scholarship and the ways that they blazed a trail in the ways urban studies could be done. Not only are these historic achievements now slowly being recognized, but they remain of great theoretical importance. Just one example:

As Decker states, “The rereading of Du Bois’s works became the stating poin for critical whiteness in the United States in the late 1980s.” (220)

And of course, the question remains haunting academia and its continued embeddedness in a white elite setting despite the increase in diversity (and you just have to read Patricia Hill Collins or Angela Davis or bell hooks or any other number of scholars of colour to see just how difficult and precarious their situations remain)

To what extent do progressive white scholars of today unwittingly interject racist biases in their science even while believing they stand above prescientific racial assumptions? (221)

Aldon Morris bringing W.E.B. Du Bois to life at the LSE

On Thursday I had the opportunity to go to a most powerful and inspiring lecture from Aldon Morris on W.E.B. Du Bois — a lecture in the language and rolling alliterative cadences of civil rights struggle which was such a pleasure and inspiration to listen to. It was wonderful to feel how language and subject can transform a space, bring a sense of history and movement to fill the air and the soul. Even better that it should be as the ‘British Journal of Sociology 2016 Annual Public Lecture’, best of all to find it in a place become as corporate as LSE.

A shame, as the LSE is no stranger to movement, and still has a number of vibrant scholars.

22493Aldon Morris wrote what may be my favourite book looking at the Civil Rights Movement — it’s hard to limit myself given how much good work is out there, but it may well be true. I have been working through another collection he co-edited on social movement, and I am looking forward to reading more about Du Bois (whose book on Philadelphia published in 1899 made me question everything I knew about the field of urban studies — but not deeply enough I realise) and the men and women who forged an engaged and meaningful sociology with him at Atlanta University — all highlighted in Morris’s latest work The Scholar Denied.

23493879I will save a deep engagement with Morris’s argument for the happy time when I manage to read my newly-signed copy ( I got a hug too! As if my evening were not already awesome). I just wanted to remember the things that most remained with me from the lecture.  First how it struck me that this book is not just about granting Du Bois his rightful place in the canon — important as that is. That alone would surely be too little too late.  The importance of returning to Du Bois lies in his continuing significance in both the substance and method of our own thought and scholarship, primarily — and to paraphrase — in the ways he was about challenging paradigms, disrupting narratives, and illuminating truths. There was such a clarity about the ways in which the dismissal of Du Bois and the importance of his work has led to an impoverished sociology from its beginnings. This is what needs to be challenged so that it is never forgotten — and of course the challenge continues as part of the struggle to increase a diversity of background and experience within sociology — the key to avoiding similar impoverishment today.

What Du Bois did in his own time was to challenge the prevailing, and sloppy, car-window sociology and theorisations based upon the unchallenged fallacies of Jim Crow racism. He set out to challenge and prove that these unquestioned beliefs were in fact myth. I had forgotten that he was a trained historian rather than sociologist, and so he always contextualised his work within the history of the rise of racist mythologies (more and more I think this historical contextualisation is the key to understanding all injustice). To do so he chose to live and work within Black communities, to interview people to bring their voices to bear on these questions, to understand their experiences, and in that way to create a body of evidence through fieldwork to support the absolute destruction of a biological basis for white supremacy in Black inferiority.

Three of Du Bois’s many contributions:

  • the theorisation of the global colour line — not just in the US but as a global phenomenon emerging out of colonialism
  • Idea of double-consciousness, and a prefiguring of intersectionality
  • the importance of standpoint — he turned the whole formulation of the ‘Negro’ problem (still being asked by Myrdal and others decades later) upside down, asking people ‘how does it feel to be a ‘problem?’ He worked to challenge the construction of such ideas and the privileging, the normalising, of the white viewpoint. Such unquestioned normalisation is the essence of shoddy scholarship, is it not?

Then, of course, there is his work for the NAACP, his continuing engagement in social justice movement, his support of students in radical struggle, and their right to be radical and fight as they felt called — the way he continues to be a model for scholars in how they understand and change the world.

This hardly does justice to either the content or the kind of inspiration to be gained that evening — but the podcast from LSE can be found here. The evening came as a crown to a truly lovely, if very long day, and I shared those final hours with Ules, still finishing his PhD on migrants and their relationships with charity. Both of us felt a similar happiness, I think, in hearing a Black scholar reclaim the radical righteousness of Du Bois in LSE’s Old Building. Even if we were shafted in a rather disgraceful organisational breakdown that meant the reception scheduled to take place after the lecture was unexpectedly cancelled at the end of the talk.

I was tired, though. That morning had started with a few hours on the train from Bristol, then a very long coffee then lunch then pastries in Russell Square with friends-who-are-really-family, Geoffrey and Heather from The Circle Works. Some talking about space and community building and care. Then a quick walk up to the British Library to meet with the wonderful Debbie Humphrey for the first time. She was interviewing me for City‘s website and made me feel like my stories and articles had some real value, it was such an honour and a pleasure though I was incredibly long-winded. Next time, of course, I shall have to be the one interviewing her, because her photographs are spectacular and her work fascinating and full of insight on the lived experience of housing and struggle. Some of my favourite things. There is much I miss about London, if only it weren’t eating itself.

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The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study

The Philadelphia NegroW.E.B. Du Bois ([1899], 1995) The Philadeplphia Negro: A Social Study. University of Pennsylvania Press

Du Bois is unquestionably the father of modern Sociology, the more of this I read, the angrier I became that this is not universally recognized. This book is extraordinary. It doesn’t escape all of the faults of its time (this was published in 1899!), but the level of rigorous scholarship and its depth of insight floored me just a bit. What also floored me was how very little things have changed, and that was heartbreaking. But the key to why Du Bois is not a larger figure in Sociology as a whole, rather than Black studies is here: the incredibly insulting terms under which he was given the work of producing this volume at all:

At the University of Pennsylvania I ignored the pitiful stipend. It made no difference to me that I was put down as an “assistant instructor” and even at that, that my name never actually got into the catalogue; it goes without saying that I did no instructing save once to pilot a pack of idiots through the Negro slums (xvi, quoting Dusk of Dawn, pp 58-59)

His understanding of race as not being monolithic, and his humor:

I shall throughout this study use the term “Negro,” to designate all persons of Negro descent, although the appellation is to some extent illogical. I shall, moreover, capitalize the word, because I believe that eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter (footnote 1, p 1).

His understanding of the connections between slavery and oppression of all workers:

Very early in the history of the colony the presence of unpaid slaves for life greatly disturbed the economic condition of free laborers (14).

There is a lovely history of African Americans in Philly, what most caught my attentions was the early organizing of the Free African Society in 1787 by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, which resulted after a split in Allen forming the African Methodist Episcopal Church of America, or A.M.E., first African-American Church in America and such a pivotal part of every African-American community across the country.

Du Bois covers the hope inspired by the Haitian Revolution, the rise of multiple white mobs leading to an actual decrease of African Americans in the city between 1840 and 1850. The rise of the highly paid chefs and caterers, who catered to the very cream of Philadelphian Society and earned good wages until the fashion shifted towards European cuisine, exiling African Americans from the field all together. His detailed maps and house-by-house questionnaires cataloguing occupant details, personal observations, interviews as he knocked on each and every single door in the 7th ward. The maps were particularly interesting as they are based upon the Booth maps, detailing poverty in London in the mid-1800s and using the same moral categories, with the bottom being the vicious and criminal poor.

Having just read William Julius Wilson, it was fascinating to encounter similar findings 80 years apart – and much the same moralizing tone – in noting the high number of women widowed, separated ‘indicating economic stress, a high death rate and lax morality’ (70), and a tendency to late marriages. Like Wilson, Du Bois would find that improved employment opportunities would solve almost all ills. He presents an extensive and detailed study of work, with the methodological note:

There was in the first place little room for deception, since the occupations of Negroes are so limited that a false or indefinite answer was easily revealed by a little judicious probing; moreover there was little disposition to deceive, for the Negroes are very anxious to have their limited opportunities for employment known… (Footnote 1, p 97)

Under male occupations there were some interesting things on the list: huckster listed under entrepreneur, and what is a kalsominer? Paper Hanger, Oyster Opener. Under the occupations for the ladies, he has “politicians” in quotes (2), Root Doctors (2) and a Prize fighter! But only one. Prostitutes are also hidden away in a much bigger table for the whole city, but no pimps—although he describes their existence. Maybe they fall under hucksters? What is most clear is how African Americans were systematically shut out of manufacturing and better paid higher status jobs. Du Bois is smart enough to note not just the losses of income here, but the impossibility of accumulating wealth. The ways that wages are driven down:

To appreciate the cause of low wages, we have only to see the few occupations to which the Negroes are practically limited, and imagine the competition that must ensue. This is true among the men, and especially true among the women, where the limitation is greatest… their chances of marriage are decreased by the low wages of the men… (110)

He doesn’t explore this, but mentions the possibility that such occupational segregation is as much caused by racism as it then in turn causes it to deepen.

The peculiar distribution of employments among whites and Negroes makes the great middle class of white people seldom, if ever, brought into contact with Negroes—may not this be a cause as well as an effect if prejudice? (111)

He notes the existence of ‘the curious prejudice of whites’, their dislike, for example, of being buried near Negroes. He gives the story of the funeral procession of caterer Henry Jones being turned back from the cemetery gates (121). But above all, he sees it as economic:

It is often said simply: the foreigners and trade unions have crowded Negroes out on account of race prejudice and left employers and philanthropists helpless in the matter. This is not strictly true. What the trade unions have done is to seize an economic advantage plainly offered them… white workmen were strong enough to go a step further than this and practically prohibit Negroes from entering trades under any circumstances (126) …They immediately combined against Negroes primarily to raise wages; the standard of living of the Negroes lets them accept low wages, and, conversely, long necessity of accepting the meagre wages offered have made a low standard of living. Thus partially by taking advantage of race prejudice, partially by greater economic efficiency and partially by the endeavour to maintain and raise wages, white workmen have not only monopolized the new industrial opportunities of an age which has transformed Philadelphia from a colonial town to a world-city, but have also been enabled to take from the Negro workman the opportunities he already enjoyed in certain lines of work (127)

Unions – ‘white’ sometimes actually inserted as one of the qualifications, but more generally informally maintained. To come to grips with the problems of the 7th ward, however, is above all providing employment:

…the one central question of the Seventh Ward, not imperative social betterments, raising of the standard of home life, taking advantage of the civilizing institutions of the great city—on the contrary, it makes it a sheer question of bread and butter and the maintenance of a standard of living above that of the Virginia plantation (140).

There is a chapter on health, noting high incidence of disease and sufferance, high death rates, particularly in comparison to other groups. He rarely loses his sustained sarcasm:

Particularly with regard to consumption it must be remembered that Negroes are not the first people who have been claimed as its peculiar victims; the Irish were once thought to be doomed by that disease—but that was when Irishmen were unpopular (160).

There is this startling pronouncement on the social nature of crime and on crime as rebellion that precedes and frames a chapter which in other ways sometimes seems to fall back on a more moral reading more palatable to his employers:

Crime is a phenomenon of organized social life, and is the open rebellion of an individual against his social environment (235).

The chapter on crime is sandwiched between this identification of employment as the primary issue and then telling lists of severe economic hardship house by house, room by room. This is followed by lists of individual’s efforts to educate themselves and failing, to find jobs and failing.

The real foundation of the difference is the widespread feeling all over the land, in Philadelphia as well as in Boston and New Orleans, that the Negro is something less than an American and ought not to be much more than what he is (284)

He notes that African Americans ‘are in the economic world purveyors to the rich’ (296), which forces them to live close, in central areas of the city where rents are higher, and there he pays more for house-rent than any other group. For those venturing outside of certain areas:

The Negro who ventures away from the mass of his people and their organised life, finds himself alone, shunned and taunted, stared at and made uncomfortable; he can make few new friends, for his neighbors however well-disposed would shrink to add a Negro to their list of acquaintances…Consequently emigration from the ward has gone in groups and centred itself about some church… (297)

While within African American areas:

agents and owners will not usually repair the houses of the blacks willingly or improve them. In addition to this agents and owners in many sections utterly refuse to rent to Negroes on any terms…public opinion in the city is such that the presence of even a respectable colored family in a block will affect its value for renting or sale… (348)

He states his optimism that this is changing. Sadness.

He notes the social distinctions between those born in Philly and those arrived from the South, with many migrants trying to hide their origins. Unlike many other coming after him who idealized the original ghetto with its mixture of classes, he also describes the distance between the better classes and the rest despite physical proximity:

…they are not the leaders or the ideal-makers of their own group in thought, work, of morals. They teach the masses to a very small extent, mingle with them but little, do not largely hire their labor. Instead then of social classes held together by strong ties of mutual interest we have in the case of the Negroes, classes who have much to keep them apart… (317)

He also describes the ways in which class intersects with a racial hierarchy that puts Anglo-Saxon on the top, this white privilege is extended with some ‘reluctance’ to the Slav and Celt. ‘We half deny it to the yellow races of Asia, admit the brown Indian to an ante-room…with the Negroes of Africa we come to a full stop’ (387). And within the Negroes, there are distinctions as well, of the ‘better’ classes he writes:

They are largely Philadelphia born, and being descended from the house-servant class, contain many mulattoes (318).

So much contained in that one sentence: the remnants of slavery, the higher social class/caste belonging to lighter skin, the history of rape.

There is a brilliant section on voter fraud. Du Bois has some strange ideas about capitalists, the wealthy, the employers being of a better, more intelligent class more suited to improve society. He flirts with the idea of a benevolent dictatorship to solve some of these problems. Part of me thinks he is playing his white funders just a little here, but he might not be. He certainly became more and more radical over time. But here, he seems to be advocating limiting the right to vote to the ‘worthy’ due to the corruption of machine politics. There is a great transcript of a trial quoted at length, my favourite part:

Philip Brown, a McKinley-Citizen watcher, said that the election was a fraud. He saw Mr. Roberts with a pile of money, going around shouting, “That’s the stuff that wins!” (377)

At the same time, I think Du Bois has a somewhat realistic and practical view of why his people might be in favour of machine politics, noting that they do offer some positions allowing African Americans to advance. These are better than none. The challenge is certainly to the reformers, who he fairly outrightly labels as racists, to prove their reforms will be of benefit. In his conclusions he writes:

If in the hey-day of the greatest of the world’s civilizations, it is possible for one people ruthlessly to steal another, drag them helpless across the water, enslave them, debauch them, and then slowly murder them by economic and social exclusion until they disappear from the face of the earth—if the consummation of such a crime be possible in the twentieth century, then our civilization is vain and the republic is a mockery and a farce (388).

And this is what I think he believed could lie ahead. The report ends on an optimistic note, but given its nature as a study leading to policy recommendations to help solve ‘the Negro problem’ (and I love how this entire book reframes it as a white problem) it does end on a hopeful note.

Also included is another study: ‘Special Report on Negro Domestic Service in the 7th Ward’ by Isabel Eaton. It made me think of Angela Davis’s work on this solidarity sometimes shared between abolitionist figures and early feminists and suffragettes who came together on the margins. Unlike DuBois’s work it doesn’t really get down to much of the lived experience of domestic workers, but is an invaluable data source on a subject too much ignored…the work of Black women.

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Black Marxism – Cedric J. Robinson

Black MarxismBlack Marxism is a book of immense scope and impressive in its immensity. It felt absolutely overwhelming as I read it, but going back over it, it feels more like some kind of treasure trove that will continue to yield new things every time I open its cover — so some initial lengthy yet also paradoxically brief notes…

The European Roots of Capitalism

It begins at the European beginning of Capitalism, going through the rise of the bourgeoisie through first cities, then absolutist and colonial states. As Robinson states: “European civilization is not the product of capitalism. On the contrary, the character of capitalism can only be understood in the social and historical context of its appearance.” [25] And because this is true, the age-old conceptions of race, enemy and exploitable other simply translated itself into new terms as the world changed: “As an enduring principle of European social order, the effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures upon which they were formed. None was immune. [29]”

He moves on then to look at the English working class, and how their formation was also entwined with racialism. Marx and Engels both acknowledged the existence of racial divisions, but believed that these would be erased as capitalism developed, even though there did not appear to be signs of it happening. As Robinson pointedly notes:

Neither Marx nor Engels were unaware of the proletariat’s failure to become a universal class.76 Both studied the Irish Question closely, were active in the attempt to resolve its destructive impact on the historical processes of English working-class formation, and commented on its import for future proletarian organization. Nevertheless, the impact of their experience with the English proletariat on their theory of the proletariat’s historical role appears to have been slight. [51]

He’s scathing of the whole Socialist tradition really, particularly in its early stages, and in my opinion entirely rightly. Its solid basis lies in the bourgeoisie itself, with no connection to the working classes:

It is a period dominated by eccentrics, visionaries, and didacts. The wistful trails of Godwin, Paine, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Pecquer, lesser and grander lights, preoccupy the historians, along with the most often short-lived utopian communities associated with some ofthem. The agitations, rebellions, riots, and struggles of artisans, wage laborers, peasants, and slave laborers are largely irrelevant to the tradition in the early nineteenth century and mostly constitute a background “noise” in this the era of the socialist writer. … Their work becomes a demonstration of the independence of socialist theory and social movements from one another. When once again they collide, in the 1840S, 1870S, and early 1900S, each had assumed forms and prerogatives only slightly tolerable to those of the other.

He returns Marx to his time and place, from 1848 to the rise of Bismarck in 1862. He traces the ambiguities of Marx and Engels’ positions on nationalism, and argues that they did not understand it, in the same way that they failed to understand racialism: that it was neither an aberration nor a stage, but something as determined by history as their world revolution failed to be. He argues that ideologies have in fact “helped to abort those social and historical processes believed to be necessary and inevitable; have catalyzed rebellions and revolutions in often unlikely circumstances and among unlikely peoples; and have assisted in extraordinary historical achievement where failure was “objectively” immanent.” [82]

Only then do we return to race:

In short, there were at least four distinct moments that must be apprehended in European racialism; two whose origins are to be found within the dialectic of European development, and two that are not:

1. the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as “blood” and racial beliefs and legends.
2. the Islamic (i.e., Arab, Persian, Turkish, and African) domination of Mediterranean civilization and the consequent retarding of European social and cultural life: the Dark Ages.
3. the incorporation of African, Asian, and peoples of the New World into the world system emerging from late feudalism and merchant capitalism.
4. the dialectic of colonialism, plantocratic slavery, and resistance from the sixteenth century forward, and the formations of industrial labor and labor reserves.

It is now a convention to begin the analysis of racism in Western societies with the third moment; entirely ignoring the first and second and only partially coming to terms with the fourth. … In each instance, the root of the methodological and conceptual flaws is the same: the presumption that the social and historical processes that matter, which are determinative, are European. All else, it seems, is derivative.

Black Marxism is a refutation of such a framework.

Moments of Black struggle

And so on to rebellion and uprising in Africa and its diaspora flung across the world by the European slave trade. He writes:

Black radicalism, consequently, cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis. It is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilization: [97]

Robinson finds how this was ignored in a deep historical look at previous contacts between Blacks and whites, the shift of Blacks being seen as Islamic militants and soldiers to slaves and a very different set of stereotypes. From there he looks at the long history of the slave trade, mentioned earlier was the Italian trafficking of ‘Tartars’ and ‘Poles’ and ‘Cathays’, but now it has expanded into the extraordinary movement of tens of thousands of people in the trans-Atlantic trade. Thus we arrive at black radicalism. As he states at the opening of chapter 6:

However, Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks-men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
This was the embryo of the demon that would be visited on the whole enterprise of primitive accumulation. [173]

And thus follows a whole splendid history of Black resistance through the ages, uprisings and revolts, some of the marron comunities you might have heard of like Palmares but many that you probably have not. It ends with Africa: Revolt at the Source. In delving deeper into the nature of the Black radical tradition, he finds in fact that “one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence.” [242], in contrast to the ‘massive and often indiscriminate’ brutality of the Europeans in quelling such revolts. He claims that such an absence shows that

This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.
It becomes clear, then, that for the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism.

He goes on to argue for a particularly African tradition of granting primacy to the metaphysical, not the material. A tradition of resistance through collectivity. I’m not entirely convinced by the psychology of it, but there’s definitely something there. “They lived on their terms, they died on their terms, they obtained their freedom on their terms.” He argues that this cast doubt on the idea that capitalism was able to ‘penetrate and reform’ all social life, or strip life down to bare survival.

The Formation of the Black Intelligentsia:

Black Marxism then moves on to the third section to look at W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright. It is an immensely rich look at Du Bois, my favourite passage distilling some of the wealth in Black Reconstruction:

And in every instance, peasants and agrarian workers had been the primary social bases of rebellion and revolution. Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilized working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle. Revolutionary consciousness had formed in the process of anti-imperialist and nationalist struggles, and the beginnings of resistance had often been initiated by ideological constructions remote from the proletarian consciousness that was a presumption of Marx’s theory of revolution. The idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the “mirror of production.” The oppositions that had struck most deeply at capitalist domination and imperialism had been those formed outside the logic of bourgeois hegemony. [324]

C.L.R. James loved fiction! Who knew. This section looks more at his critiques of Marxism, some interesting reflections on Black Jacobins and this interesting passage: “It implied (and James did not see this) that bourgeois culture and thought and ideology were irrelevant to the development of revolutionary consciousness among Black and other Third World peoples. It broke with the evolutionist chain in, the closed dialectic of, historical materialism.” [386]

And the section on Wright, so rich on how writing and experience and political consciousness fold together, there is so much here, I can’t sum up. There’s this:

For Wright, it was not sufficient for Black liberation that his people come to terms with the critique of capitalist society. He had observed: “Marxism is but the starting point. No theory of life can take the place of life.”55 As a critique of capitalist society, Marxism was necessary, of course, but it was ultimately an internal critique. The epistemological nature of historical materialism took bourgeois society on its own terms, that is, presuming the primacy of economic forces and structures.56 As such, the historical development from feudalism of the bourgeoisie as a class served as a logical model for the emergence of the proletariat as a negation of capitalist society. Wright appeared quite early to have understood this thesis as a fundamental error in Marxist thought. Even as early as 1937, he had begun to argue that it was necessary that Blacks transform the Marxist critique into an expression of their own emergence as a negation of Western capitalism.

Brilliant stuff on ideology and violence, the importance of experience, but I will let Robinson himself do the final summing up of the contributions of each to a valid theory of liberation:

Du Bois

It was, Du Bois observed, from the periphery and not the center that the most sustained threat to the American capitalist system had materialized. … Just as important for him, however, was the realization that the racism of the American “white” working classes and their general ideological immaturity had abnegated the extent to which the conditions of capitalist production and relations alone could be held responsible for the social development of the American proletariat. The collective and individual identities of American workers had responded as much to race as they had to class. The relations of production were not determinant. [448]

James

No revolutionary cadre, divorced from the masses, ensconced in state bureaucracy, and abrogating to itself the determination of the best interests of the masses, could sustain the revolution or itself. [449]

Wright

Wright evoked in his writings the language and experience of”ordinary” Black men and women. In this way he pressed home the recognition that whatever the objective forces propelling a people toward struggle, resistance, and revolution, they would come to that struggle in their own cultural terms. [449]

And my final quote which I believe deserves much thought:

Western Marxism, in either of its two variants-critical-humanist or scientific-has proven insufficiently radical to expose and root out the racialist order that contaminates its analytic and philosophic applications or to come to effective terms with the implications of its own class origins. As a result, it has been mistaken for something it is not: a total theory of liberation. [451]

Du Bois, the Black Panthers, and the lumpen

Came over to Norwalk today to hang out with Meo…the parents of small children really do fall asleep early! To get here of course, it takes two trains, I almost miss taking the train. The blue line was actually full of camaraderie today, and the blind guy who always comes on the train to ask for change actually took out one of his fake eyes. He did quite well. And I got some reading in.

I was reading Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. – The Future of the Race. I picked it up in the library on a whim. It is Gates and West essentially reacting to W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay “The Talented Tenth.” And I believe I read this in college, when I was just angry and not politicized. It shocked me reading it again, Du Bois says:

“Can the masses of the Negro people be in any possible way more quickly raised than by the effort and example of this aristocracy of talant and character? Was there ever a nation on God’s fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and always will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground.”

Which is, of course, pretty much the absolute antithesis of everything I believe. They idea of anyone deciding who is worth saving actually makes me want to throw something. I do not believe that “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its great men.” Or even women for that matter. Of course, I suppose Du Bois makes sense if you conserve the framework of capitalism.

Funny that for Du Bois, change comes from the top tenth. For Marx, the middle-lower bit, the industrial workers…was it ever as high as 60%? In a world with ever more lumpens the workers are shrinking I believe. And for the Black Panthers it was the bottom…how many are at the bottom now? 20%, 40%, 50%? It all depends on your definition I suppose. I wonder about Mao’s peasants, and who comprises the anarchist’s masses. I’m reading Elaine Brown’s autobiography now as well…it’s big and hardcover and not at all portable. And it is astonishing.

I don’t really have anything thought out today, these are just things I was thinking on the train.