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A Plea for the American Negro

  160 The Critic

A Plea for the American Negro

[Mr. Chesnutt is particularly well equipped for the writing of Mr. Washington's book. By birth he belongs in part to the race of which it treats, and by education, in pedagogy and the law, he brings sympathy and intelligence to bear upon the subject. Mr. Chesnutt is the author of two books of striking merit, "The Conjure Woman" and "The Wife of his Youth," both published by Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. He is now delivering lectures on the negro problem throughout the country. A biographical sketch of Mr. Chesnutt, by Miss Carolyn Shipman, will be found in THE CRITIC for July, 1899.—Eds. CRITIC.]

MR. BOOKER T. WASHINGTON has secured so strong a hold upon the public attention and confidence that anything he has to say in his chosen field is sure to command the attention of all who are interested in the future of the American negro. This volume, * which is Mr. Washington's first extended utterance in book form, cannot fail to enhance his reputation for ability, wisdom, and patriotism. It is devoted to a somewhat wide consideration of the race problem, avoiding some of its delicate features, perhaps, but emphasizing certain of its more obvious phases. The author has practically nothing to say about caste prejudice, the admixture of the races, or the remote future of the negro, but simply takes up the palpable problem of ignorance and poverty as be finds it in the South, and looking neither to the right nor the left, and only far enough behind to fix the responsibility for present conditions, seeks to bring about such immediate improvement in the condition of the negro, and such a harmonious adjustment of race relations, as will lay the foundation for a hopeful and progressive future for the colored people. The practical philosophy of the book is eminently characteristic; it fairly bristles with the author's individuality.

As might be expected, much of the volume is devoted to discussing the importance of industrial education for the negro, of which the author is the most conspicuous advocate. Himself a product of the Hampton school, Mr. Washington is a living example of the value of such institutions; and his own school at Tuskegee has demonstrated how much the condition of an ignorant and untrained people may be improved by teaching the trades and useful arts along with adequate mental and religious training. The argument for industrial education is not based upon any theory of inferiority of the negro, which is beside the question, but upon the manifest conditions under which he

* "The Future of the American Negro." By Booker T. Washington. Small, Maynard & Co.[back]
  A Plea for the American Negro 161 must seek his livelihood. Since manual labor of some kind offers the line of least resistance for the mass of the race in the struggle for existence, it is imperative that as many as possible of them qualify themselves, by becoming skilled laborers, to get as much as possible out of it. The soundness of the argument cannot be gainsaid, and there is no doubt that the extension of this system of education will be an important contribution to the settlement of our most important civic problem. There need be no fear that thereby the race will be deprived of the higher education, for the field for schools of all kinds is unlimited. There are many men to whom perhaps a trade would not provide an adequate career—Mr. Washington, for instance; there is perhaps no man who is the worse for knowing one. It is not likely that any large number of colored men are overburdened with knowledge of law, medicine, or divinity, but every one familiar with the subject will agree that there are entirely too few handicraftsmen among them. No race can play any worthy part on the world's stage which can bring to it only a few indifferent professional men and a vast mass of servants and day-laborers. It is to the building up of a substantial middle-class, so to speak, that industrial education and the lessons of industry and thrift inculcated by Mr. Washington are directed. He insists, somewhat rigidly, on the rational order of development, and is pained by such spectacles as a rosewood piano in a log schoolhouse, and a negro lad studying a French grammar in a one-room cabin. It is hardly likely that Mr. Washington has suffered very often from such incongruities, and some allowance should be made for the personal equation of even a negro lad in the Black Belt. Abraham Lincoln came out of a one-room cabin, and it would hardly have been a serious misfortune for him to have had a knowledge of French, or even of the piano. The world is wide, and the ambitious negro lad might move to some part of it where his knowledge of French or music would prove a very useful acquirement.

Mr. Washington is a pioneer in another field. He has set out to gain for his race in the South, in the effort to improve their condition, the active sympathy and assistance of the white people in that section. This is perhaps a necessary corollary to his system of education, for it is in the South that he advises the negroes to stay, and it is among their white neighbors that they must live and practise the arts they acquire. If Mr. Washington succeeds in this effort, he will have solved the whole problem. But he has undertaken no small task, and realizes it, and while hopeful, does not permit himself to be too optimistic. The student of history and current events can scarcely escape the impression that it is the firm and unwavering determination of the Southern whites to keep the negro in a permanent state of vassalage and subordination. Lynching and other barbarities practised upon the colored race may be mere local ebullitions of feeling; but disfranchisement by popular vote, and discriminating and degrading laws passed by the Legislatures, can hardly be called anything else but expressions of general public   162 A Plea for the American Negro opinion. It is difficult to think of these things as evidences of friendship. The lines of caste in the South are being drawn tighter and tighter, and with every forward step the negro takes, in certain directions at least, he but enlarges the area of the prejudice which he must encounter.

It is to be hoped that Mr. Washington may convince the South that the policy of Federal non-interference, which seems to be the attitude of the present and several past administrations, places a sacred trust upon the South to be just to the negro. But the whole nation is so directly responsible for present conditions, and the general welfare is so deeply involved, that the settlement of this problem can neither honestly nor safely be left entirely to the South. The South is poor, and needs the financial aid of the North, by giving which the North would gain the right to speak, if it did not have a higher right; the South is ignorant and backward and prejudiced, and needs the superior knowledge and progressive spirit of the North. There are many wise and able men in the South, but they are not the controlling element where the negro is concerned, by their own testimony, and they need to have their hands held up by the North. It is idle to speak of taking the negro or the negro question out of politics, for politics is the proper arena for the discussion and settlement of great public questions. There can be no safety for the rights of the citizen who is without friendly representation, and there is no more important and far-reaching field for enlightened statesmanship than the future of the American negro.

There will undoubtedly be a race problem in the United States, with all its attendant evils, until we cease to regard our colored population as negroes and consider them simply as citizens. Ignorance and poverty and immorality exist in all countries, and can be dealt with independently of questions of color. But so long as we have laws determining, by standards of race or complexion, whether or not a man shall vote, where he shall eat or sleep or sit, where he shall be taught and what; and so long as we have social customs fixing, by the same standards, what trade he shall follow, what society he shall be received in, what position he shall be permitted to attain in life, just so long will the race question continue to vex our republic How long such laws and customs will persist in the United States it were idle to speculate—probably for a long time, with variations according to latitude, and a gradual relaxation everywhere. In the meantime, if the work led by Mr. Washington shall succeed in promoting better conditions, either by smoothing over asperities; by appealing to the dormant love of justice which has been the crowning glory of the English race—a trait which selfishness and greed have never entirely obscured; or by convincing the whites that injustice is vastly more dangerous to them than any possible loss of race prestige, Mr. Washington will deserve, and will doubtless receive, the thanks of the people of this whole nation.

The closing sentence of the volume suggests its scope: "The   Two Notable Women 163 education and preparing for citizenship of nearly eight millions of people is a tremendous task, and every lover of humanity should count it a privilege to help in the solution of a great problem for which our whole country is responsible."

Mr. Washington is doing his part, to which this volume is a notable contribution, and other lovers of humanity are not neglecting theirs. The American people are justly proud of their growing strength and prestige; they cannot devote them to a better use than to go manfully to work and get rid of this black nightmare that threatens the welfare and happiness of the whole country. The race problem can be settled, but it has grown to too great proportions to be permanently disposed of along any other lines than those of equal and exact justice, let the ultimate consequences be what they may.