Science and the African Problem

“The African and European races must ... both march forward with entire equality of privilege as far as the state is concerned, yet without the bond of kinship in blood to unite them in the work of life, — indeed, with a sense that it is their duty to remain apart.”

It is easy to see that in the generations to come the history of the negro race in America will be much studied. Considered from a scientific point of view, the African in America affords the most remarkable experiment ever made in transplanting a tropical variety of man to regions having a very different climate, and offering a totally different set of associations from those in which it originated. It is doubtful if human history will ever again offer another such chance of testing the influence of a new environment on a strongly marked though lowly variety of man. The results of this vast essay will, in time, throw a flood of light on the question of the improvability of the lower races of mankind.

But it is not only as an experiment in practical anthropology that this transplantation of the negro in America will interest our successors. They will find in it an economic problem of the utmost importance. Their task will be so to combine these millions of the African people in a social order to which inheritance has not accustomed them, that the state may receive no evil influence from their presence; if possible, that it may gain some advantage from the peculiarities which the new and varied motives of this people may afford. The most hopeful friend of the negro, if he temper his hope with reason, must have much anxiety as to the final result of this unprecedented trial to which the race is being subjected. He must feel that all the other difficulties which beset the future of our people on the continent of North America are small compared with that which the negro problem presents. It has been the lot of the United States to encounter a wide range of social and political dangers. All these seem in a fair way of solution, at least in as fair a way as in any European country, except this which comes from the presence of the children of Africa on our soil. The problem of the proletariat, of the distribution of wealth and education, the dangers arising from the great social congestions in our cities, the difficulty of uniting in one social order diverse branches of the Aryan peoples, are trials which we share with every important state in the civilized world. The African question is peculiarly our own. We can see how English, Irish, French, Germans, and Italians may, after a time of trouble, mingle their blood and their motives in a common race, which may be as strong, or even stronger, for the blending of these diversities. We cannot hope for such a result with the negro, for an overwhelming body of experience shows that the third something which comes from the union of the European with the African is not as good material as either of the original stocks; that it has not the vital energy and the character required for the uses of the state. The African and European races must remain distinct in blood, and at the same time they must, if possible, be kept from becoming separate castes; there must be a perfect civil union without a perfect social accord; they must both march forward with entire equality of privilege as far as the state is concerned, yet without the bond of kinship in blood to unite them in the work of life, — indeed, with a sense that it is their duty to remain apart.

To bring about this peculiar social order is the task which is before us. By what means shall it be begun, in what ways shall our efforts be directed, with some hope of a fair issue from the grave perils which we must encounter? These are questions of the utmost moment to any American who wishes to do his duty by the difficulties of his time. At present we are doing little or nothing which appears likely to contribute much to the solution of the questions which are connected with the future of the African race in this country. After the exertions of the civil war, which was the first step in the real discussion of the African question, it seems natural that our people should be wearied of it, and determine to abandon all further care of the matter to the States which are naturally concerned therewith. We must protest, however, against the idea that the negro question is a purely local problem, and that the right to consider it is limited to those who dwell where the blacks abound. It was doubtless a very wise thing for the federal government to cease its efforts to help the negro by congressional enactments and federal authority. The stages of the so-called reconstruction were really steps towards a more fatal disunion than that which was rendered impossible by the civil war. These steps were leading to a total separation between the whites and blacks of this country; towards the destruction of the sympathy and understanding between the races, which was a heritage of great value to the old slave-holding States. But it should not be supposed that the people of the whole country have abandoned all share in the discussion of this question of the future of the negro with their relinquishment of the unconstitutional and futile effort to determine delicate social and civil relations by the rude machinery of legislation. Such an abnegation of a natural interest in a problem which profoundly concerns the future well-being of the nation and the race would be more unfortunate than the old selfish indifference of the mass of the people to the evils of slavery.

In large part, the present indifference to the negro problem arises from a failure to perceive its importance. Few persons see the magnitude of the dangers it presents, for the reason that few can conceive the amazing intricacy and delicacy of the civil and social order by which the life of the individual is built into the larger life of the state. But there are many who do discern the true importance of the African question, who remain silent because they cannot see what is to be done, and who prefer inaction to rash experiment. The following pages are intended as an essay towards a method of determining what shall be done at the outset of our effort to grapple with the difficulties which the presence of our African brethren has brought upon the state.

First of all, it seems to be evident that we need in this task the combined action of all those who recognize the magnitude and importance of the work, and are willing to labor for its solution. Experience shows that, with a large field of inquiry such as this question presents, good work is most easily done by a well-constituted society, containing a large number of students who are willing to plan their researches so that each division of the subject may come into the hands of those best fitted to attend to it. As will be seen at a later point in this writing, the variety of inquiries which should be prosecuted is very great; equally great is the need that they be prosecuted under some central control. Before we proceed to indicate the methods by which such a society should be organized, it will be proper to consider the lines on which it could appropriately begin its work.

The inquiries which would properly fall within the purview of such a society divide themselves into three main divisions, namely: first, the history of the negro race; second, the present condition of the race from the point of view of anthropology, including psychology; and, third, the social and civic quality of the race both in itself and in relation to the white people. As we shall see, these inquiries are much entangled, but this separation of the questions will at least aid us to a better presentation of the work which seems to be appointed for such an association of students. We will now proceed to discuss the method of inquiry which may be followed.

A study of the history of the negro rage will necessarily open a wide field of research, one in which the facts will be hard to gather. It is the least promising of all the departments into which the work of the society should be divided, yet we may be sure that it will give valuable results, at least from a scientific point of view, and these will have an important bearing on the other and more immediate questions. The history of the African slave-trade has yet to be written; there is a great mass of scattered material, from which a tolerably good account of it can be made. In preparing this history, the first object should be to determine, if possible, whence came the Africans who were the forefathers of the blacks in this country. It is erroneously assumed that our negro folk came altogether from the Guinea coast, and that they were entirely from the low-grade tribes who now inhabit that part of Africa. A preliminary survey of the evidence makes it appear probable that the American Africans represent a great variety of peoples from that jumble of races which have in some unknown way been brought together in central Africa. It is not unlikely that we shall find that, although our blacks are principally descended from the peoples who inhabit the Guinea coast, still there is in them a considerable admixture of other and nobler blood. If an intelligent observer travels in the old slave States, he will remark the great diversity in the form of body and outline of face among the negroes. For a time the dark skin may mask these differences; but as soon as the first impression of uniformity has worn off, he will perceive that the negroes vary in their physical configuration as much as the whites, if indeed they are not even more varied in aspect. If we can trust the reports of travelers, no such wide variation is found among the blacks of the Guinea coast, or indeed among any of the distinct races of Africa. If the result of the proposed inquiry should be to show that our negroes are not of the Niger and Congo types alone, but are an admixture of many different peoples, having little in common except their dermal uniform of the tropics, it would be a most satisfactory conclusion, for it would show us that we have among the negroes something comparable to the variety of blood and motive which is probably the basis of much of the success which our own race has achieved. If it should be found that among our negroes there exists a large share of the vigorous life of the Zulu group of Africans; even more, if it were, as seems to me probable, discovered that a considerable part of their ancestors were from the Zanzibar and Mozambique coasts, we should have to conclude that our American Africans have a far greater variety of origin than we have commonly supposed.

This hypothesis as to the composite nature of the American negro receives support from the aspect of many individuals in the South. It is not uncommon to find there faces and limbs which depart widely from the Guinea coast type, and closely approach the aspect of the Arab.

Assuming, however, that the result of the proposed inquiry is that our negroes are mainly of one blood, — that of the Congo group of tribes, — we should then turn our attention to the history and condition of these peoples. It is important that skilled observers should visit that region, and make a careful inquiry into the conditions and history of these folk. We should acquaint ourselves with their arts and their social order, that we may know the motives which inheritance has supplied in our African fellow-citizens. Although this is a large and difficult inquiry, much will remain to be done. Besides the African in Africa, there is the African in various parts of America, as well as on the continents of Europe and Asia, the wide field into which the enforced migrations of slavery have brought the race. It is of great importance that the history of the people under these diverse conditions should be well known. The range of moral and physical condition to which the Africans have been exposed has been very great. In many regions they have amalgamated with the native dominant races; there the effects of miscegenation can be traced. We know enough of the results of this process to make it tolerably clear that it is destructive to the best interests of both varieties of men; but we need a more extended study of the phenomena. Then, too, the influences of environment are of great interest. In this country, we have some data for the study of the effects of climate upon those of African blood. But the question is one of exceeding difficulty, for the reason that it is complicated with matters of race prejudice. By taking a broad statistical view of the field, it will be possible to found our conclusions on much surer ground than can be obtained in this country alone. Such data might in large measure be secured by the proper organization of the census of 1900.

Besides the study of the many scattered fragments of the African race now existing in various parts of the world, there are cases where small bodies of this people, which have once existed in Europe and elsewhere, have blended with the stronger race or altogether disappeared. At one time African slaves were common in parts of Europe; it seems likely that they were held in considerable masses, as at certain times during the Roman Empire, as well as in the more recent centuries. What has become of these people? Have they merely died out, or have they merged with the dominant race? In connection with this latter division of the inquiry, some study should be given to the cases in which the negro has blended with the remnants of the aborigines of this country. It is frequently asserted that the remnants of the New England Indians as well as of other Indian tribes have been extensively mixed with African blood. It is likely that in New England, at least, this opinion is well founded, though it is doubtful if the mixture is as great as is commonly assumed to have been the case. The dark color of these Indians, which leads many to suppose that they may have a large inheritance of negro blood, is probably in many cases the native hue of the Indian race. The moral and physical result of this blending of two extremely diverse bloods is a matter of the utmost interest. It may be studied to great advantage in the New England Indians, for among them there has been little in the way of civil or social proscription to effect the result.

It is evident that this series of inquiries, which we have termed historical, will necessarily be much commingled with those which concern the anthropological section of the work. The matter of their relation is one of details, and need not trouble us in this speculative presentation of the subject. It is clear, however, that there is enough in this field for the consideration of the historian, properly so called. If it is desired to extend this side of the work of the society, there is much to be done in the political and economic history of slavery so far as that relates to the African races. The dark slave age of civilized man is substantially at an end, and the half century which sees its termination should see also the beginning of a learned inquiry into its history and its effects. It may well be that this inquiry is of too wide a scope to be considered by a society which has a special end in view. We turn now to the matter of the second division of the work which we have devised for our association.

The section of the association which concerns the study of the negroes by the methods of modern anthropology has a more definite and at the same time a more difficult task than that which pertains to the historical aspects of the problem. In large part, the anthropological questions which have to be considered will be discerned only as the inquiry proceeds, but enough are already ascertained to show certain very important lines of research. The first of these concerns the existing mental and physical condition of the negro race in this country, and a comparison of their state with that of their kindred who dwell in Africa. It hardly need be said that this study should be based upon a careful application of anthropometry to the peoples in both regions. Difficult as such an extensive work would be, it is quite within the limits of accomplishment, and would give more results than a “polar expedition,” at a relatively trifling expense. Even a careful study of the crania secured in the two regions would, if the inquiry rested on a sufficiently large basis, give a beginning for the discussion; but this inquiry in its widest form can be so easily accomplished, compared with many of the great researches of modern days, that we can fairly look forward to its execution in the more extended way.

There is a less extended and therefore easier part of this investigation which can be carried on upon our own continent. This is as to the relative physical condition of the blacks in the different climatic conditions afforded by the various parts of the continent between Virginia and Florida, or, better, between New England and Jamaica. There are in this range of conditions differences great enough to show, in a statistical way, whether the Africans are sensitive to the influence of climatic variations, and in what manner these variations affect them.

To make these physical examinations in the best way, the study should extend to the matter of disease and longevity. It seems clear that the negro is relatively less liable to certain forms of disease than the whites, and that he is more open to invasions of other maladies than the European races. A study of the pathology of the race in different positions is a matter of great interest.

In this connection there is a curious but unnoticed problem before the inquirer, namely, Is there any change in the color of the blacks who have been long in high latitudes? The prevailing dark hue of the tropical peoples (though it must be said that sonic hyperboreans are also rather dark colored) makes it seem as if this hue were the effect of a vertical sun. If this be true, there might well be some reverse action in the case of the negroes whose ancestors for centuries have dwelt in temperate climates. In any large body of American negroes, we find a wide range of hue, some being relatively quite light colored, though the other African marks are very strong, — the hair closely kinked, the face prognathous, lips thick, nose flat, and feet splayed. These light tints of skin may be due to an admixture of white blood, but it may indicate a tendency to acquire what we may call the normal tint of the country. This is seen to be the more possible when we remember that the effect of climate in directly producing considerable changes of hue has been remarked in many of the lower animals as well as in man. Although the darkening of Europeans under the tropics is not to be compared to the permanent bleaching of the negro race, it seems to show that such changes are not impossible.

The anthropological inquiry should not end with the study of the physical system; it should be extended to the mental parts as well. It would be interesting to know, as we well might expect to from this investigation, whether the brain of the American African is larger than that of his African prototypes; but it would be still more interesting to know whether his capacity for education is greater than that of his savage kinsmen. It may be doubted if the data for this inquiry are accessible, or that they are worth searching for. Still, as a good deal of missionary work is now undertaken among the African negroes, it may be possible to determine if the two centuries of enforced labor and civilizing influences to which our American blacks have been exposed have had any effect on their mental development. It should be remembered that the main problem with reference to the negro is as to his sensitiveness to influences which make for advance. Any evidence of real, deep-seated organic advance under his American condition would be most welcome to all those who have his future and that of the state, which is a large part his, at heart.

We now turn to the third division of the inquiry, — that which concerns the civil and social condition and possibilities of the negro. At this point we must repeat a warning as to the danger of misapprehending the real status of the negro as he is seen in our American life. Leaving out of view the exceptional instances where they have risen to a higher estate, the negroes appear much like the poorer people of the dominant race. Their dark skins excepted, they seem essentially Europeans, if we may use that term to designate their white fellow-citizens. We can hardly conceive that if they were put by themselves they would be otherwise than we now see them, — a simple, easy-going, kindly, Christian people, sharers in all the more essential qualities of our race. But experience shows us that if we could insulate a single county in the South, and give it over to negroes alone, we should in a few decades find that this European clothing, woven by generations of education, had fallen away, and the race gone down to a much lower state of being than that it now occupies. In other words, the negro is not as yet intellectually so far up in the scale of development as he appears to be; in him the great virtues of the superior race, though implanted, have not yet taken firm root, and are in need of constant tillage, lest the old savage weeds overcome the tender shoots of the new and unnatural culture. To those who believe that the negro is only a black white man, who only needs a fair chance to become all that the white man is, these pages are not addressed; it seems to me, with all respect for their individuality, that they do not understand the question which is before us.

Looking upon the negro as a man in incessant need of care and of consideration, that he may have his chance with us, it is necessary to see what can be done for his advancement. First of all, we must know what education can do for him. It will by no means serve our purpose to assume that his needs are just the same as our own. It is not reasonable to conclude, because reading, writing, and arithmetic, with more or less other expanding branches of learning, are the most immediate needs in the education of the children of our own race, that they are the most immediate necessities of the black. These elements of the race education serve a very good purpose in the case of children who inherit from a hundred generations a training in the essential motives of the white race. We must find out what are the possibilities of the negro; in what way his peculiar ancestral training plus his education as an American slave has turned his mind. This is a very difficult inquiry. Though the state of American slavery gave the negro certain valuable elements of an education, in that it trained him in obedience to authority and in orderly consecutive labor, it denied him nearly all chance of showing the peculiar capacities which he may have. On the great philosophical principle of Study what you most affect, we must order the deeper and more important education of this people. The training of the school bench has its measure of importance in the matter, but the training at the work bench is often, for the savage, the more necessary of the two.

Therefore the first object should perhaps be to find in what way the negro can most immediately achieve success in some departments of educative craftwork; on what line or lines of higher employment he can be lifted above the level of a tiller of the soil. For him to continue in the place of a menial farm laborer or domestic servant means that, so far as the educative effect of employment is concerned, he is to be no better off than before his emancipation. Adscript to the field the greater part of his race must always be; but if even a few per cent. of the whole can be drawn to and succeed in other employments, the advance of the race will be greatly facilitated. Menial labor in the field is a valuable department of the race’s schooling, but the negro has probably already won all the profit that is to be gained from it. It is certain that he has been long at that school.

It seems to me that the South, in its present condition, must afford great opportunities for the study of the question as to the fitness of the negro for various employments other than agricultural labor, so that inquirers in this field will doubtless find many facts awaiting investigation. So many efforts are now making towards the education of the negro that it would probably not be difficult to secure a chance for intelligent and promising experiments in such education, — experiments which could be really measured.

Although the schools where whites and blacks are associated are not common in the South, they abound in the Northern States. In these schools most valuable inquiries could be made as to the relative progress of the children of the two races. Some hundreds of young persons of African descent are now commingled with the whites in the colleges. They are necessarily the selected persons associated with an equally selected portion of the European race. We should know how they compare in their achievement with the white youth. Care should be taken to determine whether the individuals are of pure or nearly pure African blood, for those of mixed race would not give data of value.

There are reasons for believing that the negroes can readily be cultivated in certain departments of thought in which the emotions lend aid to labor; as, for instance, in music. There is hardly any doubt that they have a keener sense of rhythm than whites of the same intellectual grade, — perhaps than of any grade whatever. The musical faculty is, perhaps, of all the so-called artistic powers, the easiest to measure in a precise way. Statistics could easily be gathered which would show whether or no this was a true racial capacity. The ability to determine the differences which are necessary to success in music can be ascertained with extreme accuracy and with tolerable ease. Yet I am not sure that any basis for comparison between the powers of the whites and of the blacks has ever been secured.

If a culture in music can be given the negro, it may be of far more value to him than most of the apparently more solid learning of our schools. It may lead to the refining, as well as to the organization, of the powerful emotional side of his being. This culture should first take the form of vocal music, for the reason that there is an element of communal action in choral singing which will give him a chance to develop the power of accord with his fellows, which seems now to be the most undeveloped part of his nature. These considerations lead me to think that music may be one of the lines on which careful inquiry may develop great possibilities for the race.

Next after these elements of individual culture, we need to look to the peculiarities of the negro character which mark themselves in the relations of the man to his fellows. Here, it seems to me, is the most serious difficulty with the race. To move onward, they must be trained to sexual continence, to observance of the marriage bond, and to associated action with their fellow-men. The condition of slavery did much to strengthen, if it did not originate, the habit of steadfast labor which we see now in the Southern blacks; it doubtless tempered their old waywardness in other things; but its whole influence was against the creation of the sense of fidelity to fellow men or women. It may be that the negroes will speedily come by these qualities, and that the failure of these parts to appear, after one generation of freedom, is due to the lowness of their estate. We want information as to the facts and suggestions of the remedies. This is an unpromising part of the proposed inquiry, because it cannot be approached in a statistical way; still, something may be done with it.

One of the functions of such an association should be the careful study of the many and varied experiments which are now being carried on in the South for the betterment of the negroes’ condition. Some of these fail, some have but a moderate success; unhappily, but a few attain a triumphant issue. The causes of success and failure are of the utmost consequence to the race and to the state. Each of these trials should be watched and its results analyzed. From such a study we may be sure that we shall glean a harvest of valuable conclusions. This much of the proposed inquiry might apparently find its place in the hands of a government bureau; but, unfortunately, the whole negro problem is so mingled with political prejudices that it would be almost impossible to obtain from such a department the spirit of impartial inquiry which is needed in this work.

Among the experiments now trying or sure to be tried in the South is that of savings-banks. The disgraceful history of the Freedman’s Bank has shown how unsafe it is to trust such experiments to the hands of men who have their authority from the government. While that bank lives in the memory of the negroes, it will not be easy to bring them to a habit of saving money. Yet the development of the sparing habit is of the utmost importance to this people. We may amend the statement of Dr. Johnson, “that people are rarely so well employed as when or where they are making money,” by saying “except when they are saving it.” What the negro needs above all things is the habit of postponing his pleasures. In the development of this habit consists in large part the difference between the savage and the civilized man. The best way of inculcating economy should be a matter of most careful inquiry. Nothing like the organization of the Freedman’s Bank will serve the need. If this business is done by the government, it should be supported by the whole credit of the nation. It may well be doubted if this would best be done by the central authority, for it would lead the negro to look away into the distance for aid, while a large part of our task is to teach him to look to himself for help.

It is not to be denied that the civil and social advancement of the negro in ways more or less apart from those already indicated is a matter of great importance, but in the main his civil rights and his social privileges, so far as the distinct separation of the two races in the marriage relation will admit, will depend upon the advance of his general culture. If we can bring him to an intellectual and moral estate comparable to that of the whites, we may be sure that he will have a social status which will not be such as to weigh heavily upon his better life. So far as we can see, the two races are doomed to live separate though they may live parallel lives. To make this divided life comfortable to both and safe for the state is our immediate object.

The foregoing sketch is sufficient to show some of the inquiries concerning the negro problem which appear to justify systematic scientific effort. Some of the suggestions will doubtless prove to be futile; experience in the work will certainly develop many others which have not occurred to me. Such is the fullness of the field that the reader, if he has paid attention to the subject, may well be able to add many things not suggested in these pages. It is clear that we are in the midst of a great darkness, which can be illuminated only by patient inquiry.

Concerning the composition of our ideal society it seems almost presumptuous to speak, but it is clear that it should include all who are at once interested in the problem and can give anything better than words towards its solution. Especially should it contain those observers in the South who see the matter near at hand, and who are independent of the prejudices of locality. It should be guided by those who have been so disciplined by scientific methods that they can keep in its moderately safe ways.

The great dangers which such a society would meet would be from the universality of the political motive. This danger can in part be avoided by a very careful selection of its members, and in part by an obstinate determination to prove at every step the scientific method.

It might, unfortunately, be necessary to limit the work altogether to the collection of facts, leaving the suggestion of remedy, where remedy was needed, to other agencies; it would doubtless be well to make this limitation at the outset. “Cranks” do not, as a rule, like statistical associations, or even historical societies. Kept within the limits of such societies, the association could fairly be secured from the danger of discords.

It is a serious matter to suggest the organization of a society which is to assume so herculean a burden as that which has been proposed in the foregoing pages, but the class of work which the negro problem makes necessary is, even in its narrow divisions, too vast for any one individual to undertake, and is beset with obstacles which take it out of the class of labors possible for the state to execute. It is to be done, if at all, by an association of those who feel an interest in these questions. It does not seem fit that we should stand idle while the fateful years move on, each making the task more difficult, each darkening the prospect of any happy solution of the problem.

In the generation now nearly gone by, our brothers of the North and South gave their lives to the first great stage of the struggle with the African question in America; we should be willing to give something to the labor which may help their sacrifices to bear good fruit.