Archive for August, 2011


Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Black nationalism was mostly nonviolent. However, some African-American leaders were very angry. To these people, gradualism was anathema. It suggested that races could coexist together at the very time when many were suggesting that the races should remain separated. In The Fire Next Time (1962) James Baldwin wrote of the “rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape . . . fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone.” By 1970, many African-American thinkers, religious leaders, social workers, and politicians were outraged. In fact, hatred and unforgiveness ran so deeply in African-American culture that the struggle became the end itself–instead of a means to an end.

Five days after the great 1967 Newark race riots, the National Conference on Black Power, held an auspicious conference that marked a dramatic change in African-American resistance strategies. A seminal paper was presented by Adelaide Cromwell Hill entitled “What is Africa to us?” Hill asked this haunting question,”On this soil, the Negro has never been given an opportunity to name himself.” Black leaders vigorously called their people to resist white cultural encroachments. For the first time violence was openly sanctioned. The black nationalist movement was a black power movement.

In Pittsburgh an inflammatory pamphlet “The Black Mood in Pittsburgh” was widely read in the African-American community. “Black is anger, Tom,” it proclaims. This pamphlet called for a “Burn Day.” “Black Power cannot mean only a black sheriff in the sovereign state of Alabama. . . black power is the power to control our lives,” LeRoi Jones wrote in 1971. “We can have nothing without power.” Black power consciously tied its views to the historical reality of America prejudice. Part of the black power movement were trying to ameliorate its race through community-based interventions. But, from the beginning, black organizers saw themselves as soldiers in a war against white domination.

Losses and Gains

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

The most impressive areas of racial solidarity occurred during 1967 in the political arena. The election of African-American mayors in several urban areas was evidence that African-Americans were gaining ground in American society. However, gains by the Civil Rights movement were mitigated by ghettoization, by welfare, and by persistent racism. Civil Rights gains were important; but many American hearts remained unchanged.

Black nationalism strategies called for the development of African-American controlled economic and political institutions. These institutions assured cultural preservation. Violence was not ruled out as a tactic to obtained desired ends.
Separatism–intentional separation from white American dominated culture and retreat into pan-African-American nationalistic culture–was the main tactic embraced by black nationalism. Separatism was not a new tactic. Black slaves early learned to avoid the “Big House” and the “white master.” By the 1960’s black leaders, many of whom were very angry, urged fellow African-Americans to live outside mainstream, mostly white, American culture. Black nationalism grew out of a belief that African-Americans had a distinct culture and this distinctiveness needed to be expressed. This was vividly evidenced at the 1968 Olympics.

Separatism had several common themes. First, slavery and discrimination were more than aberrations or anomalies in the American ethos. They were fundamental to what it meant to be a white American. Second, African-Americans assumed a position of moral authority, in some cases moral superiority, that made them in some way the true examples of American virtue. Third, because of racism, white America was failing its God given task to be a city on a hill. And, finally, some African-Americans concluded that reconciliation was too late. That white America’s apostasy was too great to be redeemed. The only thing left for African-Americans was to preserve their own culture and to separate themselves from malevolent white America.

The preservation of this culture was a weighty matter. The African-American writer Bell Hooks wrote: “This experience of relational love, of a beloved Black community, I long to know again. . . Feelings of connection that held Black people together are swiftly eroding. Assimilation rooted in internalized racism further separates us.” In Paul Marshall’s novel Praisesong for the Widow a black couple lost so much because they were so intent on prospering economically in the white world that they lost their sense of identity and history. Black nationalists decided that the only way that they could preserve African-American culture was to withdraw from white American culture.

African-Americans had always been aware of a special connection with each other. Now, in the sixties, African-American professionals volunteered their time to support African-Americans in the ghetto. Many African-Americans refused to move out of the ghetto, even when they were financially able to do so, because they wanted to remain in their own community. Milkman in Toni Morrison’s book Song of Solomon describes white/black relations in this way: “Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everyone. White men want us dead or quiet–which is the same thing as dead.” Deep in the heart of African-Americans circa 1965 was an increasing frustration with white society. At the same time there was a growing African-American anger. Black Americans were willing to die in vast numbers for their cause and many did.

So Much Time Has Passed, So Few Changes . . .

Monday, August 29th, 2011

So much time had passed and so little had changed. By the middle of the twentieth century most African-Americans had enough. They joined together to form their own nation.

Black nationalism was a movement among African-Americans whose primary purpose was to define and to celebrate African-American culture and heritage. The early civil rights movement sought to assimilate blacks into American society; black nationalism oftentimes sought to bring blacks out of American culture. Black nationalism engaged white America and gained civil rights for blacks. To black nationalists, American democracy was a modern form of tyranny inflicted on the black minority by the white majority.

I use “black nationalism” and “black power” interchangeably. I also include within black nationalism the black muslim movement–which today is growing rapidly.

Black nationalism had been a part of the African-American vision since Frederick Douglass urged blacks to follow the examples of modern Jews in Europe and America, who, by emphasizing group solidarity and pride, improved their status. Likewise Booker T. Washington offered a nonviolent celebration of “blackness” and called for his country to embrace a form of separatism and black pride. W. E. B. Dubois called his race to black nationalism:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double- consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the yes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Black nationalism flowered in the 1960’s. The civil rights movement increased expectations and black pride. Black nationalism both grew out of this optimism and in reaction to it. In other words, black nationalists felt that the Civil Rights movement did not go far enough to improve black conditions. Black nationalism grew in what was perhaps the most disappointing period in African-American history: the last thirty-five years. For it was during this period that the Civil Rights movement brought increased expectations and profound disappointment–both at the same time.

Black Nationalism

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) addresses the whole issues of segregated housing, work opportunities, and education for blacks. It is a play about a black family living in post-World War II Southside Chicago struggling with day-to-day survival. But they are sustained by a dream: moving to the suburbs. The family inherited $10,000 from an insurance policy and it appears that their dreams will come true. But a visit from a representative of a white homeowners’ association bursts their bubble. To keep this black family from moving into his predominantly white neighborhood, the white owner offers to buy them out. While the family ultimately rejects the offer, this play illustrates the pressure and disappointments that urban African-Americans face as they pursue the American dream.

Black authors of the period knew that the dream was souring. Jean Toomer’s novel Cane explored the ugliness of race relations in the South as well as the impact of the city on African-American lives. Toomer rejected any concept of a “promised land.” Langston Hughes’s poetry reflected the ambivalence African-Americans felt towards the Great Migration. In “Elevator Boy” he wrote:”I got a job now/running an elevator/in the Dennison Hotel in Jersey/Job ain’t no good though/no money around.” William Attaway’s novel Blood on the Forge (1941) criticized those who see factory work as glamorous. On the contrary, he argued, black migrants were exchanging familiar southern violence for the strange and savage violence of the northern factories. But the most critical examination of migration is Richard Wright’s Native Son (1941). The tragedy that befell the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, has much to do with his disappointment with the fact that Northern urban life was no better than Southern agricultural life.

The northern, white dominated city has not been kind to African-Americans. This fact was not lost on their children–the generation who marched in Selma and burned the Watts section of Los Angeles. They formed the black nationalist movement–characterized by an emphasis on separatism and cultural exclusivity. What black Americans learned again was that resistance–not paternalism, not accommodation, not compromise–worked in American society. Ralph Ellison’s grandfather on his death bed admonished young Ralph: “. . . our life is a war . . . we are spies in the enemy’s camp . . . learn it to the younguns.”

By the middle 1960’s, black nationalism, a primarily urban phenomenon, had captured much of the African-American agenda. In fact, black nationalism–a celebration of African-American culture as a separate entity–remains a powerful force in American culture.


Thursday, August 25th, 2011

African-Americans continued to face important legal barriers to equality: their voting rights were obstructed even after they were legally granted the right to vote! They were not allowed to serve on juries until the middle of the nineteenth century or in state militias until the late 19th century. They were segregated in public places until civil rights legislation in the middle 1960’s. In most states they were forbidden to marry whites until the early twentieth century. And, finally, African-Americans were targets of urban violence from the beginning of the Great Migration.

Violence, too, were now again a part of northern urban life. The first examples of racial urban violence was inflicted by whites against blacks–not blacks against white. Competition between African-Americans and whites often erupted into deadly violence. Large scale riots occurred in Chicago, Washington,D.C., Omaha and other cities in 1919-20. Housing and job shortages in the post-war North sparked several riots. A wave of labor strikes also fueled racial antagonisms. African-Americans found themselves in the middle between labor and management. Thus, many African-Americans crossed the picket lines in a 1919 labor strike at great peril. Courted by employers and at the same time intimidated by unions who had never treated them well, African-Americans found themselves in an increasingly isolated position.

For the first time, in the wake of civil rights legislation, in the 1970’s the number of African-Americans residing in the suburbs increased by another 43 percent. At the same time the proportion of whites living in the suburbs rose by 13 percent. Approximately 23.3 percent of the suburban population in 1980 was black. It must, however, be emphasized that while some blacks were living in the middle-class integrated suburbs, twice as many blacks as whites lived in the low income inner suburbs closed to central cities. This did not in itself represent the opening of white suburbs to African-American families. More typically, it represented African-American families moving from the central cities into outlying areas which already contained small African-American enclaves. And, in any event, a 1990 poll revealed that two-thirds of upper-middle class, primarily suburban blacks interviewed complained of persistent discrimination.

Urban Racism

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

African-Americans, in another way, were out of step with other labor developments. For instance, while other northern workers were shifting from manual to non-manual employment, from blue-collar to white-collar work, African-Americans did not share in much of this upward mobility. The number of African-Americans in white-collar jobs was 2.8% in 1910, 3.8% in 1920, and by 1930, 4.6%. In fact, by 1930, over two-thirds of the African-American population was still working in unskilled jobs. There was no ethnic group in such a position. As the African-American community braced for the Great Depression, it found itself in a particularly vulnerable position.

Did African-Americans form a class identity? In other words, did African-Americans grow angry with American society because they were poor or because they are black? African-Americans have never formed a class identity. In the 1920’s, in places like Chicago, white labor was still controlled by ethnic groups, and even though ethnicity was being challenged by mass culture, African-Americans remained isolated from the normal forces of class formation–industrialization and labor–because of racism. In fact, the only institutions that thrived in the African-American community were the segregated ones (like the church).

African-Americans were not just another ethnic group. No urban ethnic group experienced the frequency and severity of prejudice that African-Americans knew. Ethnic groups could climb the socio-economic American ladder. Not so for many African-Americans. Or, at least it was more difficult because of racism. For no other group in America was residential segregation increased so uniformly.

Race and racial discrimination were a ubiquitous reality for blacks throughout their American experience. Whether it was 1767 Philadelphia, 1876 Atlanta, 1890 Detroit, 1920 Chicago, or 1950 Cleveland, the urban African-American experience was structured by discrimination, unequal competition, and a lack of political rights. All advances in standard of living, housing, and political power were inevitably mitigated by racism. The city taught African-Americans an unforgettable lesson: racial discrimination could never be escaped. This was a bitter pill for the African-American community to swallow.

Human depravation experienced by African-American immigrants was similar to that of other immigrants. Both groups initially were at the bottom of the social, economic, and political ladder. Both experienced persecution from a dominant indigenous groups. Both were exploited badly by an industrial middle class. But one key difference separated them: race. The white immigrant within one generation could lose his accent, put aside his Old World folkways, and become a white American. For African-Americans, however, there was no hope that racism would ever be overcome.

The quality of life of African-Americans in northern cities declined steadily from 1900-present. Decline was measured by increased racial violence, increased residential segregation, inevitable unemployment at the slightest rumor of a recession, and home ownership. Ethnic immigrants often owned their homes; African-Americans rarely did.

Group solidarity changed from a decidedly ethnicity flavor to class allegiance among most ethnic groups. No such class allegiance developed among black people. Racism was the great equalizer in the black community and forbade class formation: factory workers and medical doctors both lived in the ghetto. Blacks were unable to gain the employment and housing identities necessary for class formation. Also, in Chicago, frozen out of the trade unions until after the 1930’s, African-Americans generally were unwelcome in the predominantly white working class and practically totally absent from middle management. In fact many white industrialists imported white Southern foremen to be shop foremen in northern factories.

Northern Cities

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Once they arrived in Northern cities, African-American newcomers reveled in newfound freedom. But they quickly were absorbed into a deadly paradox: they could sit anywhere they wished on the trolley, but their children went to separate schools. In most cities they could vote, but there were no African-American candidates. They were accepted by relatives, but often rejected by other indigenous African-Americans and nearly always rejected by other immigrant groups. Education was better; housing was better; jobs were better. But the dream was compromised by hostility and prejudice. And, by the middle 1960s, the dream had soured all together.

And the Klan was present in the North too. For instance, Robert and Helen Lynd’s seminal social history study of Middletown, New York, showed that with the rise of the Klan in the 1920’s, with the increase of ethnic and racial migration, racism was very much present. “Negroes are allowed under protest in the schools but not in the larger motion picture houses or in Y.M.C.A. or Y.W.C.A. . . . Negro children must play in their own restricted corner of the Park.” In the local newspaper, Middletown black news was featured separate from Middletown white news. Clearly northern urban society saw two Americas emerging as surely as two had existed in the southern agrarian society. White privilege in the North was as strong as it was in the South.

Racism mitigated any economic gains that were everywhere available in the capitalistic society arising in most cities. If an African-American migrant was fortunate enough to possess a skilled trade and could gain entrance to the union controlling the craft–which was doubtful–then he might prosper. But even the adequately compensated artisan or industrial worker had to return each night to live in the least desirable section of the city. Gains in industry by African-Americans in World War I and in the twenties were substantial, but after World War I, and during the Great Depression, African-Americans were the first ones to be let go.


Monday, August 22nd, 2011

There was no uniform way that African-American ghettos grew in the North. For instance, whereas the flat terrain of most northern cities concentrated African-Americans into one or two large, homogeneous communities, Pittsburgh’s hilly topography isolated them in six or seven communities. In Washington, D.C., the African-American community concentrated in adjacent alleys. And so forth. In general, African-Americans lived mainly in tenements and alley dwellings that they did not own. When they immigrated from the South, they naturally settled in neighborhoods where other African-Americans lived–since many family members were part of these urban communities. If they did own a home, economic circumstances normally forced them to take in boarders. They clustered, too, in the city`s lowest-paying, least-skilled occupations. Unlike their immigrant counterparts, they really could not live anywhere or work anywhere they wanted. African-Americans were barred from the city’s economic mainstream and they entered local industry only after the First World War. Many African-Americans were not even allowed to vote until after the Civil War. Race relations in the city and country were framed by white supremacy. Social relations of slavery gave way to an informal code of exclusion and discrimination which in turn evolved into legally and mandated separation and disenfranchisement. The essence of African-American life was pervasive powerlessness. There was an irony of accommodative resistance–the implications of compromises necessary to build institutions and to occupy anomalous roles–that touched every African-American life. They occupied a peculiar place in the South and their acceptance of that place determined their survival. Every black American knew that this was true in the white South; what they did not anticipate was that racism was also had a nefarious hold over the white North. Whether in the southern countryside or in the southern city–and in the Northern city too–racism remained an inescapable demon.

Ghettoization enhanced control. African-Americans were contained and controlled in the ghetto. Control became more difficult in the northern city in the middle twentieth century. As television programs like Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet teased destitute ghetto dwellers it became increasingly difficult for control to be maintained. Mass produced and affordable televisions made isolation virtually impossible. Television, too, contributed to increased violence in the African-American ghetto.

The African American Story

Friday, August 19th, 2011

African-Americans moved to the urban setting only to find that the same problems existing in Mississippi existed in Detroit. This fact was not lost on African-American leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They began their protest movements in the cities.

Slaves were brought to America primarily as agricultural workers (in the South) and in the cities as laborers and house servants (in the North). After the American Revolution, the invention of the cotton gin increased the need for slaves. Before 1900 the African-American urban population grew very slowly, if at all, as European immigrants filled the need for unskilled labor. In the urban setting African-Americans were in competition with immigrants for jobs and opportunities. This competition explained why there was often friction between African-Americans and other urban immigrant groups for most of American history.

The life of antebellum African-American urban freemen in the city presaged later urban experience. Unable to vote, segregated in all sectors of public life, urban African-Americans had to look for their identity and well-being inside the African-American community itself. Thus, vital strong communities arose in places like Harlem in New York City as a result of ghettoization.

“Ghettoization” was a term that arose in the Twentieth Century to describe the systematic accumulation of poor Americans into sections of urban America. It normally was synonymous with poor housing and substandard living conditions. But it was much more. It was a breeding ground for crime, illegitimacy, and drug abuse. It maintained de facto segregation in most cities. Housing in the city was centered around three issues: adequacy, distribution, and safety. On all three issues ghetto housing came up short.

Within the ghetto some African-Americans forged strong community ties and nurtured cultural specialties. But, as we shall see, ghettoization overall had a devastating effect most black Americans.

Roughly, it was in the period from 1870 to 1915 that most African-American ghettos were formed in the United States. From 1915 to the present these ghettos were expanded. Housing patterns, like all other parts of the African-American experience, were framed by racism.

My Story

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

During the first half of the twentieth century, race was essentially a Southern issue. After the Great Migration it was an American issue. The South, and only the South, had to deal with the contradictions of segregation. But the African-American migration to the city made segregation and racism national issues.

The African-American community demographic center shifted from a rural southern base to an urban–northern and southern–base. But needs and wants remained the same. With this Great Migration came many dreams, hopes, and expectations that were not satisfied. Great anger resulted. The first great attempt of national assimilation occurred during the Great Migration. It was an unmitigated failure.

Life was not much better in the North. In many ways it was worse. In 1970, there were 10 million African-American heirs of the slave system. Many now lived in northern cites. They occupied the bottom of the ladder of American society. They died younger, they were sick more, they were hungry most of the time. Many could not read, many did not have jobs. Northern migrations did not appreciably improve African-American life.

After the Great Migration and its disappointment resistance gave way to frustrated anger. Langston Hughes and Jacob Lawrence and millions of African-Americans saw the Great Migration as an epic struggle of injustice, strife, change, and even beauty. “Perhaps never in history has a more utterly unprepared folk wanted to go to the city; we were barely born as a folk when we headed for the tall and sprawling centers of steel and stone. We who were landless upon the land; we, who had barely managed to live in family groups. . . how were we to know that the moment we landless millions of the land–we men who were struggling to be born–set our awkward feet upon the pavements of the city, life would begin to exact of us a heavy toll in death?” Richard Wright, Twelve Million Black Voices (NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988), p. 93. These men and women described their hopes for something better. The African-American community embraced this vision. Believed in this vision. Shared this vision with their children. One can well imagine the degree of disappointment the African-American community experienced when in fact the North–while it offered more legal protection for African-American Americans–did not offer African-Americans a sanctuary from racism. The Great Migration had not brought equality and justice.

After the civil right movement, Martin Luther King’s efforts, the Black Panthers, and thirty years since the 1960 race riots there still was essentially two Americas. The failure of the Great Migration made the African-American agenda more concerned with power issues. After the Great Migration American racial relations became a history of movement–not progress.

The northern city remained the point of destination for most African-Americans. But, as we shall see in the next chapter, the city was not kind to African-Americans. The failure of African-Americans to prosper in the northern city assured the failure of the Great Migration and was more evidence that white domination was still very much alive in America.

The northern city stood as a fitting symbol of this hope. American northern cities stretched along a main street–there was no beginning or ending. The city with its myriad of possibilities felt like it would be better than the rural South. The city, however, became a metaphor for what went wrong with race relations in America. In 1978 the New York Times stated what most African-Americans already knew: “The places that experienced urban riots in the 1960’s have, with a few exceptions, changed little, and the conditions of poverty have spread in most cities.”