“On August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near point comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.”
The opening paragraph and imagery from The New York Times 1619 project.
Black history and the Negro problem
Rev. Debora Jackson
February 11, 2020
In 1908, the American Journal of Sociology published an article by humanist Charlotte Perkins Gilman entitled “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem.” In the article, Gilman argued that people of African descent, who had been forcibly brought to this country, were largely incapable of progressing to the level of whites. The “problem,” she noted, was that “He is here; we can’t get rid of him; it is all our fault; he does not suit us as he is; what can we do to improve him?”[i] Her idea was to “enlist” a body of people “below a certain grade of citizenship,” creating an enforced labor system of African Americans who were trained and suited for agriculture or manual labor “without the strain of personal initiative and responsibility to which so many have proved unequal.”[ii] Gilman argued that her plan of organized labor created self-sufficiency and increased social evolution, while benefiting the larger society.
On the heels of such offensive assertions, it was no surprise that noted historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson helped to establish the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. The organization dedicated itself to researching and promoting the achievements of black Americans and people of African descent. By 1926, the organization instituted Negro History week, which was to be observed during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. By 1970, the celebration of Black History was extended to the entire month of February. The original premise of the celebration was unchanged. The observance recognized the accomplishments, historical achievements, and contributions of African Americans. While the debate continues to rage as to whether Black History should be observed for a week, a month, a year, or not at all, that is not my question. My question is whether our Black History Month observances function to overcome the permanence and persistence of “The Negro Problem.”
Think about what happens during Black History Month. Too often we trot out great notables – Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, Shirley Chisholm, and Barack Obama to name a few – as if to say, “See! We have some good ones too!” Special efforts are made to showcase those most accomplished to seemingly counteract the negative perceptions and stereotypes of the race in general. During Black History Month, we will also cite the litany of black inventors. For example, we will hear about Lewis Latimer, who invented the carbon lightbulb filament; Granville Woods, who invented the induction telegraph and electrical devices for trains; Madam C.J. Walker, the first black female millionaire, known for her haircare products; or Benjamin Banneker, a surveyor and author of almanacs who created a clock that struck on the hour. Again, this who’s who listing is offered almost as an insistence that African Americans made notable contributions in the history of this country. These are undeniable facts, but will they change the beliefs of those who continue to regard African Americans as problematic and subordinate? I think not.
It is not lost on Americans of African descent that this country was built on the backs of an indentured and enslaved labor force. Indigenous peoples suffered what was effectively genocide, leaving the progeny of those who were enslaved or indentured to tell the story. But rather than promoting the stories of a few good men or women, why not tell the dehumanizing stories like Gilman’s “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem?” Why not? Because it creates discomfort. The Southern Poverty Law Center chides our school systems for not properly teaching the significance of slavery, as only 8% of high school seniors surveyed were able to identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.[iii] If we cannot teach slavery, which was irrefutably core to our history, how will we ever teach or face this country’s racist past? And if we cannot face our racism, how will we ever dismantle white privilege and the persistent beliefs that stem from it?
If we cannot teach slavery, which was irrefutably core to our history, how will we ever teach or face this country’s racist past? And if we cannot face our racism, how will we ever dismantle white privilege and the persistent beliefs that stem from it?
Gilman suggested in 1908 that those who do not progress and are degenerating into a social burden or actual criminals should be the responsibility of the state. In 2020, we seemingly endorse that belief, as evidenced by the criminal justice system and the mass incarceration of African Americans. In 2014, African Americans constituted 13% of the nation’s population, but represented 2.3 million people or 34% of the 6.8 million correctional population.[iv] Furthermore, Gilman suggested that through “Americanization” foreigners would realize increased social evolution, an opinion that baldly discounted the value of the immigrant’s culture of origin. Is this not our belief when we insist that immigrants assimilate, abandoning their culture, language, and norms to be American? Alternatively, we could follow the example of Beltrami County, Minnesota whose citizens voted against any refugee resettlement in their county.[v]
Such sentiments and actions speak to the real problem, which is our inability as a nation to confront and deal with the discriminatory atrocities of this country – those in the past and those that continue in the present. Until we do, we cannot effectively celebrate what should be a source of tremendous pride – the rich diversity of the United States of America. However, if we could ever overcome that obstacle, it would no longer be necessary to recognize Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Indigenous Peoples Month, or any other specially defined observance. Instead, it would all be regarded as American history.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is the Director of Operations for All Girls Allowed, a faith-based, non-profit that restores life, value, and dignity by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, building schools, churches, and women’s centers, and mobilizing churches and partners for global impact. She was previously the Director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her newly released book “Meant for Good: Fundamentals of Womanist Leadership,” is available through Judson Press.
[i] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Jul 1908), 80.
[ii] Ibid, 82.
[iii] Kate Shuster, Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching Hard History,” January 31, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/20180131/teaching-hard-history. Accessed 2/11/2019.
[iv] NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/, Accessed 2/12/2019.