The New Departure in Negro Life

“He is putting away childish things, and striving in his own crude, grotesque way to grasp matters of higher import.”

It is, I believe, universally admitted that the spirited pictures of negro life now current represent the past rather than the present. The picturesque old-time customs that have hitherto formed the main element in the conception of negro life have passed or are passing away. Doubtless the sense of their decadence adds to their interest. For, generally speaking, the perspective of time is no less essentially an adjunct of the picturesque than the perspective of space.

Where these characteristic festivities still linger their decadence is manifest; they are but phantoms of their former selves. Even the most casual observer cannot fail to be struck with the perfunctory, half-hearted manner in which they are gone through with. The immemorial corn shuckings, preëminently the most characteristic of all such “getherings,” once the rendezvous of whole neighborhoods and the nocturnal scenes of mirth explosions perhaps unequaled since the days of the Bacchanal, are now very tame affairs indeed. Time was when November evenings were fitfully resonant with corn-shucking songs; when night after night stunning volumes of weirdest melody shrilled through the humid, helpful air, till met and buffeted by kindred strains; and when for many successive nights one would seek in vain to pass beyond their sway. Now vainly is the “oration put out;” no crowd assembles, and as a rule the planters are driven to husk corn in the daytime and with hired labor. Even when, in accordance with ancient usage, the negroes meet for that purpose, it is without zest or spirit, less carnival than conventicle.

Not that the freedman is one whit less sociable than formerly, for he is a gregarious creature. His faculties are as yet of too low an order to generate spontaneously sufficient mental pabulum. Reflection is out of his line. He seeks as eagerly as ever that stimulus indispensable to illiterate minds, which is found only in the crowd. Nor are the assemblies of the new cult anywise less noisy, demonstrative, and inflammable than those of the old. His ardor has simply taken a different turn. It is the same impetuous current of emotion, now swollen to a torrent, that has burst its former bounds, and worked itself a wholly different channel, — a channel doubtless more conformable to the instincts and genius of the race.

In short, an unmistakable change in negro character, the natural outcome of his altered conditions in life, is now at hand, and in an advanced stage of progress. He is putting away childish things, and striving in his own crude, grotesque way to grasp matters of higher import. The bulk of the black race have learned to read after a fashion. His primer, his vade mecum, is the Bible. And Bible reading, Bible poring, has produced its inevitable results on a race at once ignorant, imaginative, and supersusceptible. That wondrous volume is suddenly unsealed to hearts too impressible to ignore; to minds too unphilosophical to nullify. Sudden light discovers and magnifies to an unthinking, godless people the awful peril of their position. A material heaven looms above; a still more material hell yawns beneath. They recoil in horror and dismay from their previous course. Everything appertaining to it is rigidly, indiscriminately tabooed. Presto! his lightness turns to gravity, his mirth to austerity, and his freedom to asceticism. Agreeableness is the touchstone to which he brings every thought, action, and word. Pleasure and happiness become synonyms for vice and ungodliness.

Never before, perhaps, in the history of the world have two decades brought about such a manifest change in a race. It is as impossible for the jocund customs of the past to subsist in this atmosphere as for the carnivals and merry-meetings of the sixteenth century to survive the austere spirit of the Reformation and inceptive Puritanism. The corn shuckings and “shindigs” have fallen as irrecoverably as fell the saturnalia of the “Boy Bishop,” the “Abbot of Unreason,” or the “Pope of Fools.” To the morbidly intense and brooding imagination of the impassioned religionist, impending damnation is too vivid, too real, to admit of levity or even of cheerfulness. Every trivial daily action, lopped, stretched, and distorted, is subjected to the Procrustean test of Biblical models, or pseudo-models. Religion, religionism, has permeated and steeped every fibre of his being. It forms the staple of his speech by day, and the stuff that his dreams are made of by night. This is intensified as he grows in Biblical knowledge. The metaphors and illustrations with which he never tires of garnishing his talk have but one source. Nothing warms his blood so quickly or so thoroughly as religious controversy, into which he enters with the volubility of a Kettle-drummle and the pertinacity of a Mause Headrigg. He dogmatizes with equal glibness on the abstruse and the simple. He expounds the unfathomable mysteries of the Apocalypse with the same offhand ease and patronizing self-sufficiency that he proves immersion to be the primitive and only authentic and efficacious mode of baptism. His active imagination literalizes the entire Scriptures, and he has an inbred contempt for commentaries. Barring the unspellable names, the Bible is to him a volume of glass, clear, plain, unmistakable, seen through at a glance, from Genesis to Revelation. Nor are his interpretations always inept or ever unoriginal. He has the insight, one-sided and defective though it may be, which the fanatic seldom lacks.

The preference he shows for particular parts of the sacred volume is also highly characteristic. He prefers the technically religious to the practically righteous, the old Bible to the new. It has to do more with the concrete, and is therefore more congenial and more tangible to men of low mental and spiritual cast. Its thoroughly human tone is more in accord with the coarseness and crudeness of his moral fibre. It depicts an intensely religious life in which religion and ethics were widely sundered. And when I predicate these features of the negro cult, I assert no more than could be broadly maintained of every religion save Christianity alone, and what was in great measure true of that prior to the comparatively modern divorce between the secular and the spiritual.

However, the New Testament is by no means unread. Perhaps it is read as much as the Old, though its contents are not so readily assimilated. But even there the reader’s preferences are no less characteristic. The parables and the vision of St. John seem to be his favorites. Especially if the plot of the parable—if I may use the term—bears an analogy to some incident with which he is familiar, or is founded on some phase of nature which has come under his own observation, it strikes him at once. He revolves it in his mind again and again, and is as much delighted at his cleverness as was the primitive Indian when he first found, himself able to manipulate a fire-lock or a jack-knife. I have never heard a negro quote any part of the Sermon on the Mount, saving perhaps the parable of the candle and the bushel. Perhaps it is too direct and practical. He seeks canons of faith rather than rules of action. It is simply maintaining a truism to assert that poetry is more insinuating than philosophy or ethical codes; that the imaginative faculty preludes the reasoning.

Almost the last spark of the negro’s hilarity and joyousness is quenched by this chilling religionism. Saving the indispensable vocations of life, there is little or no discrimination between the secular and the sinful. To be happy is to be wicked. Dancing and the singing of secular songs are relegated to the category of unpardonable sins. It is safer to impeach his honesty than his orthodoxy. Better call him a bad man than a lax Christian. For from his point of view the terms are by no means synonymous. With him, as with all similarly conditioned people, religious fervor and practical uprightness go not always hand in hand.

A case highly illustrative of this point came recently under my own observation. In the neighborhood lived a cheery, light-hearted negro fiddler called “Sol.” Sol, though the rendering of divers of his pieces might have grated somewhat on an over refined ears saw fit to dub himself “er born musicianer;” and as his music sufficed to dance by, no one challenged his right to bear the title. His position was both popular and lucrative. In fact, the earnings of his fiddle were about double the gross product of his little farm, on which he and his family—particularly the latter—delved year in and year out. For many years did this rustic Ole Bull withstand the aggressive religious ferment that encompassed him. His wife succumbed and “got religion,” as did his children down to an age far below what is commonly deemed the limit of moral responsibility. Finally there opened a revival, exceptionally long, fervid, and uproarious. Sol “come through,” and his first act of atonement was to immolate with all due solemnity his fiddle, as both fellow and instrument in his old ways of unutterable turpitude; leaving its shreds as an accursed thing by the stump over which it was shivered. Thenceforward his face wore an altered look. Not only the expression changed, but the very cast of the features was different. He at once became as much noted for silence and ruefulness as he had been for loquacity and merry-making. But sad to tell, scarce three months had worn away when a neighboring mill was feloniously entered, and several sacks of flour taken therefrom. By a fortuitous chain of circumstances the flour was traced direct to Sol’s house and found under his bed, in bags bearing the mill-owner’s name. He confessed the theft, which was indeed undeniable, and got a twelvemonth in the penitentiary. But being popular, and hitherto irreproachable in character, a numerously signed petition effected his release somewhat short of that term.

He has lately returned home, and though laboring under the stigma of confessed theft, no measure of reward or punishment could drive him to touch a fiddle or engage in any form of worldly diversion. Nor is he, viewed from his standpoint, a hypocrite or mere simulator of piety. He does not profess to be sans tache, but what candid man does? His grotesque, illogical mind totally reverses the scale of culpable actions. To him ungodliness is a crime, theft a peccadillo. It is blameworthy to steal, but atrocious to enjoy one’s self. In fine, he seems to think that the rigidness with which he observes the first half of the decalogue atones for his frequent infringement of the remainder. In his zeal to perform his duty towards God, he overlooks his duty towards his neighbor.

The vast majority of the blacks are Baptist. Next in point of numbers come the Methodists. Lastly, though vastly in the minority, stand the Presbyterians and Episcopalians. In fact, the latter admit and deplore their inability to carry out an adequate system of missionary work among the negroes. In only a few of the large towns do we find African Episcopal churches. True, all the white Episcopal churches have galleries set apart for the negroes, but they are unused, or at most sparsely occupied. It is not uncommon to see a white Episcopal church with one or more colored members; but the chances are that one will turn out to be the well-paid sexton, and the rest a couple of superannuated carriage drivers, who, having in former days “‘sociated wid the quality,” scorn to “take up wid poor folks and niggers.”

As a rule the doctrine and ritual of this church seem utterly incomprehensible, and therefore repellant, to the negro. He harbors an undisguised distrust of it. He does not consider it religion at all. He has not the faintest idea that it can save anybody. There is too little heat and too much form; and the negro is the truceless enemy of form in religion or out of religion. He is a creature of emotion, impulse, noise. Restraint is odious, insupportable. An apt text, a familiar allusion, or simply the shout of a fellow listener, plunges him into ecstasies, and thenceforward he is alive only to the sound of his own voice.

As an illustration of what the mass of the negroes think of Episcopacy, I will give a colloquy I once overheard between an old Baptist negro and his former master’s son. It had been nearly a score of years since they parted, and the affectionate old man had made a long and weary journey on foot to see as a man the one he had doted on as a child. Before separating he gave the talk a religious turn, expressing much anxiety lest the young man should be lost.

“Why, Uncle Ned,” responded the youth, “I attend church regularly, and endeavor in all things to do what is right. What more can I do?”

“Ah, Mars Tom, Mars Tom,” said the old man fervently, “when did yer get ‘ligion? Whar was it yer went down under de water? ‘Member, child, de good book says ‘pent and be baptized, else yer ca’ enter de kingdom of heaben.”

“True, Uncle Ned,” was the rejoinder; “but you must remember that we Episcopalians, while as devout and earnest as you are, have different notions of what repentance and baptism mean. We are less demonstrative though more deliberate than you are.”

“Child,” said the old man solemnly, “yer talk is too highfalutin fer me. But de Bible is plain as A, B, C, whar it says yer is got ter ‘pent and be baptized, er yer’ll be damned. Ise erfeard, fact I knows, yer’s not done nuther. It’s dat Pisterpalium church what’s der matter long yer. Fer what wid yer gittin’s up and yer sittin’ down, and yer ‘sponsin’, and yer prayin’ prayers dat er man up Norf made and put ‘em in er book, and yer mellydoriums er playin’ all ther time, yer’s so tuck up ther Sperit ca come nigh yer. Why, honey, dese same old eyes” (touching them thoughtfully) “is seed yer preacher lookin’ on at folks dancin’ and breakin’ der commandments. And dat ai’ all. My Polly says she seed him fingerin’ un er fiddle hisself, and moughter nigh ‘bout ter play. ‘Member, honey, ther Scripture says keep yer lamp trum an’ er burnin’, an yer ile-can full ter pour in it.”

“Now, Uncle Ned,” was the evasive reply, “I hope you don’t think my lamp is without oil, do you?”

“Child, tai’ even got no wick in it. Fac’ is, Ise erfeard yer ai’ even got no lamp,” muttered the decrepit old negro, as he mournfully shambled off.

As before stated, the bulk of the negroes are Baptists, staunch and immovable. Nor is the reason for their preference hard to find. The glowing, tumultuous, uncontrolled fervor of the revival, where hundreds writhing in inward agony literally cast themselves in the dust; the weird, preternatural solemnity of the night on which each new convert rises in turn in the hushed, dimly lit church, and with hands stretched towards heaven pours out with characteristic volubility his minute, realistic account of his desperate struggle with the devil, his hairbreadth escape from hell, his brief sojourn in heaven; the haunting scene of the baptizing, where thousands assemble around the leaf-ensconced, unrippled pond, gazing, swaying, singing, shouting, awakening echoes that have slumbered since the departure of the red man, — these, these only, are the sermons that speak irresistibly to him. Without them religion is dull, insipid, unalluring.

The negro preachers may be sharply divided into two classes, the educated and the uneducated; or as they phrase it, the “larnt” and the “unlarnt.” The former are young men who have grown up amid the new order of things, and who by dint of their own industry and frugality have managed to defray part of the cost of their limited education, some assistance having been afforded by their respective churches. They read with tolerable fluency, are slight smatterers in theology, and write after a fashion which, although almost wholly unintelligible to educated people, is, I believe, decipherable by their own race. These young divines, though they have higher ideals for their race, and are gradually acquiring a wholesome influence over them, do not as yet possess the sway of the older uneducated preachers. It would seem that they have learned just enough to make them obscure; enough to lift them out of sympathy with their simple-minded hearers, but not enough to give them true breadth and insight; and while sticklers for polysyllables, they fret in grammatical traces, insomuch that the soul-glow, the ebullient spontaneity of the race, is entangled and smothered. Book lore is as yet clogs, not pinions.

It is among the older set, if anywhere, that we must look for the traditional black orator. His originality would more than satisfy the wildest apostle of the unconventional. Neither in point of rite or doctrine is he fettered, scarce even guided, by rule or precedent. He manufactures theology with the nonchalance of a Jesuit, and coin’s words with the facility of a Carlyle. He may just be able to flounder through a chapter of Scripture, uncouth in gesture, barbarous in diction, yet earnestness lends dignity to his manner, and passion fuses his jargon into eloquence. He may habitually outrage logic and occasionally contravene Scripture, but the salient points of his discourse are sound, and his words go straight home to the hearts of his hearers.

His power out of the pulpit is also great, almost boundless. Within his own parish he is practically priest and pope. Excommunication itself is his most trenchant weapon. Never was papal anathema a more potent bugbear than his threat to “cut off.” His censorship of the morals and deportment of his flock, though to our minds insupportably annoying and humiliating, is undoubtedly wholesome and necessary. Though his discipline can by no means escape the charge of inconsistency, his influence is always exerted to make them honest and faithful men and women, and to restrain the besetting sins of the race. In many instances he resorts to their employers for information touching their honesty and industry. Then monthly, on a stated Saturday, they are rigidly required to assemble and give an account of themselves. As the negroes possess almost a morbid local attachment, they are exceeding loath to transfer their membership, when in quest of employment they move to a distance, and in many instances this monthly attendance involves a tramp of forty miles or more. But no excuse is taken, and upon failure to attend for three consecutive months they are unhesitatingly cut off. It is at these meetings that all rumors touching the morals and deportment of each member are rigidly investigated, and the culprits summarily, though from our standpoint indiscriminately, punished; the same penalty—six month’s suspension—being inflicted for dancing and for theft, for worldliness and for unchastity.

It is manifest to all acquainted with the facts that the social and moral elevation of the negro is not coextensive with his religious inflation. His perverted conception of religious truth, the wide chasm between his belief and his practice, might mislead many to suppose that he is actually retrograding; that he is really worse than when he professed nothing. But a stream should be judged by its current, not by its eddies; and on a wide and prolonged survey of the race it is plain that it moves. The motion is slow, almost imperceptible, but it is in the right direction. It is true that religion has as yet wrought little change in the negro’s conduct. His undiscriminating mind sees small inconsistency in sanctity and dishonesty, piety and untruthfulness, devoutness and unchastity. He cannot always understand that probity should be the handmaid of religion, that works should accompany faith, and that one must needs be moral before he can truly be religious.