Thursday, February 24, 2011

Celebrating Black Intellectualism

"All struggles are essentially power struggles. Who will rule? Who will lead? Who will define, refine, confine, design? Who will dominate? All struggles are essentially power struggles,and most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together." --Octavia E. Butler 

Today, February 24, 2011, marks the fifth anniversary of the passing of novelist Octavia E. Butler (b. June 22, 1946). Last June, I reflected a bit on Butler's speculations about leadership (click here), but I wanted to honor the black intellectual tradition by providing links to the writings of other African Americans whose important contributions to American intellectual thought often go unrecognized in celebrations of black history.

In the coming weeks, my students and I will continue our look at how black intellectuals (radicals and moderates) advanced the critical conversation about black equality as they identified and negotiated strategies for black progress in the midst of the ongoing struggle for acknowledgment of black humanity. 

Below are links to important speeches by these major 19th century contributors to black intellectual thought--you will see certain "resonances" in some of our own 20th and 21st century rhetoric:

Frederick Douglass, "The Composite Nation" (1869)
Ferdinand Barnett, "Race Unity" (1879)
Frederick Douglass, "On Woman Suffrage" (1888)
Ida B. Wells, "This Awful Slaughter" (1909)

I hope they put you in a reflective mood. I will post more of these speeches in the coming months, but all can be found on The Black Past: An Online Reference Guide to African American History (click here).

All best,


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Frances E.W. Harper's "Undisputed Dignity"

"Only the BLACK WOMAN can say 'when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing for special patronage, then and there, the whole Negro race enters with me.'"--Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South, 1892

February 22nd marks the centennial of the death of abolitionist, feminist, poet, novelist, and Unitarian Frances E. W. Harper* (September 24, 1825-1911). My literature students and I will be celebrating the life of this great American during our Tuesday class meeting. We are using Harper, who lived across the span of the long nineteenth century, as our bridge from the antebellum era to the beginnings of 20th century black modernity. In terms of literary output, Harper was known primarily as a poet during the antebellum era, but published a number of novels (including Iola Leroy and Minnie's Sacrifice) in her later years. 

Her short story, "The Two Offers," wherein she responds, as other scholars (such as Hildegard Hoeller) have noted, to Emersonian ideas of "self-reliance" as she considers the condition of women in the 19th century, is widely regarded as the first short story published by an African American (in 1859). It is a fascinating look at the role of the artist, whose aesthetic and spiritual self-development often precludes traditional romantic notions of what constitutes happiness. I have posted links to "The Two Offers" and a few of her more well-known poems below.  Links to more of Harper's oeuvre can be found online with a simple Google search--the Plainfield Public Library also has several of her works.

In addition, we will be looking at two post-Civil War Harper speeches ("We All Bound Up Together" and "The Great Problem to be Solved") as our classroom discussion moves into the Reconstruction Era to consider how the preoccupations of African Americans moved from strategies for the abolition of slavery to strategies for becoming full participants in American society.

I hope folks will take a few minutes to look at these works by Frances E.W. Harper--I have posted excerpts from "We Are All Bound Up Together" here. Speaking at a women's rights convention one year after the end of the Civil War, Harper delivers remarks on overcoming harsh circumstances in her own life, excoriates President Andrew Johnson as an obstacle to American progress, and also takes white feminists to task for ignoring the struggles of black women in what she viewed as a serious betrayal of their common purpose. Harper also notes her protest of discriminatory treatment of blacks in public accommodations nearly one hundred years before Rosa Parks's planned act of civil disobedience helped push forward the momentum of the modern civil rights movement. 

This is an important speech--I hope that, after reading it (along with the other readings), you will agree that Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a true exemplar of the "undisputed dignity" of African American women. Links to the other readings are below the excerpts.

Excerpts from "We All Bound Up Together" 

"We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and so¬ciety cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society can¬not afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members."

"This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail toreach its climax of success, until throughout the length and brea[d]th of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain."

"In advocating the cause of the colored man, since the Dred Scott decision, I have sometimes said I thought the nation had touched bottom. But let me tell you there is a depth of infamy lower than that. It is when the nation, standing upon the threshold of a great peril, reached out its hands to a feebler race, and asked that race to help it, and when the peril was over, said, You are good enough for soldiers, but not good enough for citizens."  


Frances E.W. Harper, "We Are All Bound Up Together" (1866)

Frances E.W. Harper, "The Great Problem to be Solved" (1875)

Short Story:

"The Two Offers" (1859)
Selected Harper poems:
*The Frances E.W. Harper Literary Society operates out of the Newark Public Library.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: "Let Us Strive On to Finish the Work We Are In"

Last known Lincoln portrait, March 6, 1865.

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—
You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest; you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you. --Abraham Lincoln, "Fragment on Slavery," ca. April 1, 1854

1st page of speech in Lincoln's hand.
Today marks the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States of America. This year marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War. Lincoln presided over the war from its beginning (in 1861) until its conclusion four years later with General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House. To commemorate the birthday of Lincoln, I have reproduced in its entirety his Second Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1865. Of course, roughly five weeks later, Lincoln was shot dead.

Below this speech, I have provided a link to other speeches by Lincoln, including his final address, delivered on April 11, 1865 (three days before his assassination), wherein he advocates for "the elective franchise," i.e., suffrage, to be extended to black men, his Republican State Convention speech of 1858 (known as the "House Divided" address, his problematic yet brilliant First Inaugural Address (1861) and, of course, the Gettysburg Address (1863).    

However, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address remains my favorite speech of all time. Along with many others, I hear echoes of Lincoln whenever I listen to President Barack Obama address the country. 

A luta continua,


Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address
Pres. Lincoln delivering his 2nd Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it--all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissole [sic] the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Black Friends: A History Lesson

At 9:15 a.m. this Saturday, February 5, 2011, I will be heading over to the Plainfield Quaker Meeting House (225 Watchung Avenue--next to main post office) for a Black History Month presentation titled "Quakers, African Americans, and Racial Justice: In the Lead Up to the Civil War," sponsored by the Union County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs. Most of my own research focuses on the antebellum era, so I am looking forward to this event and am excited to learn more about black "friends" and forbears. 

According to the program, put together by Ethel Washington, History Programs Coordinator for Union County, some of the topics that will be discussed include: African American membership in the Religious Society of Friends; the relationship between the Friends and Americans of African descent; enslavement among Friends; Quakers' important role in the passage of the New Jersey State Legislature's "Gradual Emancipation Act" on February 15, 1804; the process of freeing the Society of Friends from slaveholding at Plainfield Meeting; Quaker involvement in the Underground Railroad; and Quakers and the abolitionist movement. 

Silhouette of Captain Paul Cuffe
The only two black Quakers I had ever heard about were Captain Paul Cuffe (1759-1817), the Massacusetts sea captain and abolitionist, and Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), the Civil Rights leader and architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I have provided a couple of links to more information about these two historic leaders--I think they serve as wonderful bookends to Saturday's talk, which focuses on the period smack dab in the middle. I am also looking forward to learning more about the history of slavery in Plainfield, a topic that needs to be researched more.

Those with an interest should join us on Saturday, as the speakers will, I am sure provide illuminating insights into our American history as we honor and acknowledge the contributions of African Americans in the freedom struggle.  
Quaker Bayard Rustin (l.) and Cleve Robinson

The speakers are Vanessa Julye, Co-author of Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship (pub. Quaker Books); Roger Driesbach-WIlliams, 30-year Member, Rahway and Plainfield Monthly Meeting; Richard T. Irwin, Historiographer, Friends Meeting House and Cemetery Association of Randolph Township, NJ, and editor of History of Randolph Township, N.J.

Registration (small fee of $10.00) is at 9:15 am, and the panel presentation begins at 9:30. A question and answer period follows, and light refreshments will be served. A tour of the meeting house and burial grounds will be offered to those interested. For more information, call 908-558-2550. I hope you will join me at this intellectually stimulating event as we acknowledge and honor our past!
All best,


Links to more information: