The Negro Mind Reaches Out (excerpts)
[Reprinted, with revisions by the author, from Foreign Affairs, an American Quarterly Review, New York, Vol. III, No. 3.]
Once upon a time in my younger years and in the dawn of this century I wrote: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." It was a pert and singing phrase which I then liked and which since I have often rehearsed to my soul and asked:how far is this prophecy or speculation? To-day in the last years of the century's first quarter, let us examine the matter again, especially in the memory of that great event of these great years, the World War. Fruit of the bitter rivalries of economic imperialism, the roots of the catastrophe were in Africa, deeply entwined at bottom with the problems of the color line. And of the legacy left, the problems the world inherits hold the same fatal seed; world dissension and catastrophe still lurk in the unsolved problems of race relations. What then is the world view that the consideration of this question offers?
Most men would agree that our present problem of problems was not the Color Problem, but what we call labor, the problem of allocating work and income in the tremendous and increasingly intricate world-embracing industrial machine that our civilization built. But despite our concern and good will, is it not possible that in its consideration our research is not directed to the vital spots geographically? Our good will is too often confined to that labor which we see and feel and exercise around us, rather than directed to the periphery of the vast circle, where unseen and inarticulate, the determining factors are at work. And may not the continual baffling of our effort and failure of our formula be due to just such mistakes? Modern imperialism and modern industrialism are one and the same system; root and branch of the same tree. The race problem is the other side of the labor problem; and the black man's burden is the white man's burden. At least it will be of absorbing interest, to step within these distant world shadows, and, looking backward, to view the European and white American labor problem from this wide perspective, remembering always that empire is the heavy hand of capital abroad.
With nearly every great European empire to-day walks its dark colonial shadow, while over all Europe there stretches the yellow shadow of Asia that lies across the world. One might indeed read the riddle of Europe by making its present plight a matter of colonial shadows, speculating on what might happen if Europe became suddenly shadowlessif Asia and Africa and the island were cut permanently away. At any rate here is a field of inquiry, of likening and contrasting each land and its far-off shadow.
* * * * *
LABOR IN THE SHADOWS
This is the question that faces the new labor parties of the worldthe new political organizations which are determined to force a larger measure of democracy in industry than now obtains. The trade union labor movement dominant in Australia, South Africa and the United States has been hitherto autocratic and at heart capitalistic, believing in profit-making industry and wishing only to secure a larger share of profits for particular guilds. But the larger labor movement following the war envisages through democratic political action real democratic power of the mass of workers in industry and commerce. Two questions here arise: Will the new labor parties welcome the darker race to this industrial democracy? And, if they do, how will this affect industry?
The attitude of the white laborer toward colored folk is largely a matter of long continued propaganda and gossip. The white laborers can read and write, but beyond this their education and experience are limited and they live in a world of color prejudice. The curious, most childish propaganda dominates us, by which good, earnest, and even intelligent men have come by millions to believe almost religiously that white folk are a peculiar and chosen people whose one great accomplishment is civilization and that civilization must be protected from the rest of the world by cheating, stealing, lying, and murder. The propaganda, the terrible, ceaseless propaganda that buttresses this belief day by daythe propaganda of poet and novelist, the uncanny welter of romance, the half knowledge of scientists, the pseudo-science of statesmen-all these, united in the myth of mass inferiority of most men, have built a wall which many centuries will not break down. Born into such a spiritual world, the average white worker is absolutely at the mercy of its beliefs and prejudices. Color hate easily assumes the form of a religion and the laborer becomes the blind executive of the decrees of the masters of the white world; he votes armies and navies for "punitive" expeditions; he sends his sons as soldiers and sailors; he composes the Negro-hating mob, demands Japanese exclusion and lynches untried prisoners. What hope is there that such a mass of dimly thinking and misled men will ever demand universal democracy for all men?
The chief hope lies in the gradual but inevitable spread of the knowledge that the denial of democracy in Asia and Africa hinders its complete realization in Europe. It is this that makes the Color Problem and the Labor Problem to so great an extent two sides of the same human tangle. How far does white labor see this? Not far, as yet. Its attitude toward colored labor varies from the Russian extreme to the extreme in South Africa and Australia. Russia has been seeking a rapprochement with colored labor. She is making her peace with China and Japan. Her leaders have come in close touch with the leaders of India. Claude McKay, an American Negro poet travelling in Russia, declares: "Lenin himself grappled with the question of the question of the American Negroes and spoke on the subject before the Second Congress of the Third International. He consulted with John Reed, the American journalist, and dwelt on the urgent necessity of propaganda and organization work among the Negroes of the South."
Between these extremes waver the white workers of the rest of the world. On the whole they still lean rather toward the attitude of South Africa than that of Russia. They exclude colored labor from empty Australia. They sit in armed truce against them in America where the Negroes are forcing their way into ranks of union labor by breaking strikes and underbidding them in wage.
It is precisely by these tactics, however, and by hindering the natural flow of labor toward the highest wage and the best conditions in the world that white labor is segregating colored labor in just those parts of the world where it can be most easily exploited by white capital and thus giving white capital the power to rule all labor, white and black, in the rest of the world. White labor is beginning dimly to see this. Colored labor knows it, and as colored labor becomes more organized and more intelligent it is going to spread this grievance through the white world.
THE SHADOW OF SHADOWS
How much intelligent organization is there for this purpose on the part of the colored wold? So far there is very little. For while the colored people of to-day are common victims of white culture, there is a vast gulf between the red-black South and the yellow-brown East. In the East long since, centuries ago, there were mastered a technique and philosophy which still stand among the greatest the world has known; and the black and African South, beginning in the dim dawn of time when beginnings were everything, have evolved a physique and an art, a will to be and to enjoy, which the world has never done without and never can. But these cultures have little in common, either to-day or yesterday, and are being pounded together artificially and not attracting each other naturally. And yet quickened India, the South and West African Congresses, the Pan-African movement, the National Association for the advancement of Colored People in America, together with rising China and risen Japan-all these at no distant day may come to common consciousness of aim and be able to give to the labor parties of the world a message that they will understand.
After all, the darker world realizes the industrial triumphs of white Europeits labor-saving devices, its harnessing of vast radical forces, its conquest of time and space by goods-production, railway, telephone, telegraph and flying machine, it sees how the world might enjoy these things and how it does not, how it is enslaved by its own ingenuity, mechanized by its own machinery. It sees Western civilization spiritually bankrupt and unhappy.
Africa is happy. The masses of its black folk are calmly contented, save where what is called "European" civilization has touched and uprooted them. They have a philosophy of life logical and realizable. Their children are carefully educated for the life they are to lead. There are no prostitutes, there is no poverty. In Asia too (although here I speak by hearsay, knowing Asiatics but not Asia) there is, over vast spiritual areas, peace and self-realization; a certain completeness of individual life; a worship of beauty even among the masses; adequate handling of matter for certain personal ends and satisfactions, and a religious spirit which is neither hypocritical nor unbelieving. On the other hand Africa and Asia have no command of technique or mastery of physical force that can compare with that of the West; they know practically nothing of mass-time production and their knowledge of the facts of the universe is far behind modern knowledge.
That comfort is necessary to complete human happiness, who can for a moment doubt? But what shall the world pay for this completenesswhat is it paying now? First of all, it has in the heyday of its triumph been able or willing to supply comfort but to a minority of its own population. The majority of the whole people of Europe have poor food, inadequate clothing, bad shelter, inadequate amusement and misleading education. They are more comfortable than the African savages only in their water supply, their foods and their opportunity to look at brilliantly lighted streets.
To save then this efficient organization of work, this synchronization of human industrial effort the like of which the world never before sawto save this, and led by the idea that at all hazards it must be saved, white Western Europe has long been united in a determination to make the colored worlds contribute to its comfort, subordinate themselves to its interests, become part of its machine. It argues that on this path alone lies salvation for the lazy South and the sleepy East; that upon them lies the salvation of the world; and they ignore with perfect ignorance the possibility that lazy enjoyment and silent contemplation of life, without a surplus or even a sufficiency of modern comfort may for a moment be held an end and ideal of existence; or that the efficient West and North can learn of the lazy South and sleepy East.
If now the world, and particularly the laboring world, should come to realize that industrial efficiency as measured by the amount of goods made and the size of the private profit derived therefrom is not the greatest thing in the world; and that by exchanging European efficiency for African leisure and Asiatic contemplation they might gain tremendously in happiness, the world might be less afraid to give up economic imperialism. Moreover, future economic imperialism can only be held together by militarism. Militarism is costly and to increasing masses of men since the Great War, hateful; more than thisthe darker world is held in subjection to Europe by its own darker soldiers. Africa is owned and held almost entirely by Europe; but at the same time Africa is held and kept in subjection to Europe by black troops; black troops in the Sudan, black troops in French Africa, black troops in British West Africa, black troops in Belgian Congo, black troops in Italian Africa, black troops in Kenya, in Uganda, and in former German Africa. Mutual jealousies, widespread ignorance, tribal hatreds and red uniforms make this to-day a most effective method of military control. But for how many years can this be depended upon? Indian soldiers hold India in subjection to England and France. They cannot always be expected to do this. Some day they are bound to awake.
Above all this rises the shadow of two international groupsthe Jews and the modern Negroes. The Jews are, in blood, Spanish, German, French, Arabian and American. Their ancient unity or religious faith is crumbling, but out of it all has come a spiritual unity born of suffering, prejudice and industrial power which can be used and is being used to spread an international consciousness. Where this spirit encounters a rampant new nationalism as in Poland or bitter memories of national loss as in Germany, or racial bigotry as in America, it stirs an Anti-Semitism as cruel as it is indefinite and armed in fact not against an abused race but against any spirit that works or seems to work for the union of human kind.
And toward this same great end a new group of groups is setting its face. Pan-Africans as a living movement, a tangible accomplishment, is a little and negligible thing. But there are twenty-three millions of Negroes in British West Africa, eighteen millions in French Africa, eleven millions and more in the United States; between eight and nine millions each in the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Africa; and a dozen other lands in Africa and America have groups ranging from two to five millions. This hundred and fifty millions of people are gaining slowly an intelligent thoughtful leadership. The main seat of their leadership is to-day the United States.
In the United States there are certain unheralded indications of development in the Negro problem One is the fact that for the first time in America, the American Negro is to-day universally recognized as capable of speaking for himself. To realize the significance of this one has but to remember that less than twenty-five years ago a conference of friends of the Negro could meet at Lake Mohonk to discuss his problems without a single Negro present. And even later than that, great magazines could publish symposiums on the ""Negro" problem without thinking of inviting a single Negro to participate. Again, a revolution is happening under our eyes with regard to lynching. For forty years, not less than a Negro a week and sometimes as many as five a week have been lynched in order to enforce race inferiority by terrorism. Suddenly this number in 1923 was cut in half and it looks as though the record of 1924 was going to be not more than one Negro lynched each month and all this was due primarily to the tremendous onslaught of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People against lynching and their broad-casting of the facts.
Finally and just as important is the new national policy as to immigration, born of war. This policy is seemingly a tremendous triumph of the "Nordics" and not only cuts down the foreign immigration to the United States from 1,000,000 a year to 160,000, but also seeks to exclude the Latins and Jews and openly in insult Asiatics. Now despite the inhumanity of this, American Negroes are silently elated at this policy. As long as the northern lords of industries of the white land could import cheap white labor from Europe, they could encourage the color line in industry and leave the Negroes as peons and serfs at the mercy of the white South. But to-day with the cutting down of foreign immigration the Negro becomes the best source of cheap labor for the industries of the white land. The bidding for his services gives him a tremendous sword to wield against the Bourbon South and by means of wholesale migration he is wielding it. But note again the extraordinary bed fellows involved in this paradox; Negro laborers, white capitalists and "Nordic" fanatics against Latin Europe, Southern task masters, labor unions, the Jews and Japanese!
Led by American Negroes, the Negroes of the world are reaching out hands toward each other to know, to sympathize, to inquire. There are few countries without their few Negroes, few great cities without its groups, and thus with this great human force, spread out as it is in all lands and languages, the world must one day reckon. We face, then, in the modern black American, the black West Indian, the black Frenchman, the black Portugeses, the black Spaniard and the black African a man gaining in knowledge and power and in the definite aim to end color slavery and give black folk a knowledge of modern culture.
There are those who see in the movement only dangeronly the silly agitation of would-be fomenters of trouble. They discount it, laugh at it and secretly and openly obstruct it. When the Pan-African Congress planned to meet in Brussels all the industrial exploiters of the Belgian Congo united to misrepresent its objects, distort its actions and punish its local supporters. When the same Congress met in France strong pressure was exerted to keep it from any interference with the investments of French capital in Africa. When the Congress met in England it was dubbed "French" in sympathy and anarchistic in tendency. And yet slowly but surely the movement grows and the day faintly dawns when the new force for international understanding and racial readjustment will and must be felt.
To some personsto more human beings than ever before at one time in the world's history there came during the Great War, during those terrible years of 1917 and 1918, a vision of the Glory of Sacrifice, a dream of a world greater, sweeter, more beautiful and more honest than ever before; a world without war, without poverty and without hate.
I am glad it came. Even though it was a mirage it was eternally true. To-day some faint shadow of it comes to me again.
My ship seeks Africa. Ten days we crept across the Atlantic; five days we sail to the Canaries. And then turning we sought the curve of that mighty and fateful shoulder of gigantic Africa. Slowly, slowly we creep down the coast in a little German cargo boat. Yonder behind the horizon is Cape Bojador whence in 1441 came the brown Moors and black Moors who through the slave trade built America and modern commerce and let loose the furies of the world. Another day afar we glide past Dakar, city and center of French Senegal. Thereupon we fall down, down to the burning equator past the Guinea and Gambia, to where the Lion mountain glares, toward the vast gulf whose sides are lined with Silver and Gold and Ivory and now we stand before Liberia; Liberia that is a little thing set upon a Hill;thirty or forty thousand square miles and two million folk; but it represents to me the world. Here political power has tried to resist the power of modern capital. It has not yet succeeded, but its partial failure is not because the republic is black, but because the world has failed in this same battle; because organized industry owns and rules England, France, Germany, America and Heaven. And can Liberia escape the power that rules the world? I do not know; but I do know unless the world escapes, the world as well as Liberia will die; and if Liberia lives it will be because the World is reborn as in that vision splendid of 1918.
And thus again in 1924 as in 1899 I seem to see the problem of the 20th century as the Problem of the Color Line.