Black Pride


‘YES, I beat ’im up. Nobody ain’t gonna call me a nigger and get away with it. I got too much race pride for that.’

These remarks were made by a small Negro lad who had just emerged victoriously from a fistic encounter with a white boy about the same size.

That was about twenty years ago on a school playground. The next day I had the opportunity of being a visitor at that school, where the same little boy sat in his classroom surrounded by his white classmates. The music supervisor was present, and every child was singing: ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ‘ Auld Lang Syne,’ ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ ‘Scotland’s Burning,’ and many other old songs. Finally the teacher called for ‘Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground.’ The Negro lad buried his face in his book and stopped singing. I know the teacher saw him. However, she at no time acted as if she were aware of his embarrassment. The children finished the song.

I must say that they did a splendid job, for which their supervisor complimented them. She went much further. She told them how the plantation songs which describe the days of slavery and work of the early Negroes are the only songs which America can call her own. She told of the number-one place those songs hold in our land. She even explained that Negroes sing these songs with more feeling, enthusiasm, and in better style than any other citizens of America. I know her intention was to relieve the Negro child of his embarrassment, and to encourage him to join his classmates in the singing.

The next song was the immortal ‘Old Folks at Home.’ The Negro boy again retreated into the covering of his book. I wondered to myself just what had become of all the race pride he had possessed the day before. The music which described the work and life of his ancestors he considered an insult and embarrassment. It was hard to account for such a sudden turn of character in our little champion of race pride. Perhaps the child had mistaken a case of personal anger for a serious insult to the entire race.

Are we Negroes of America champions of race pride or not? My personal answer is no. It is a shame that we people who are so conspicuous, who total such a large percentage of the population of these United States, who so often suffer from the rules of segregation and discrimination, who possess such a small amount of the wealth and political control of the nation, who have accomplished what we have accomplished through the most obscure and difficult of all channels, who are oftentimes despised and avoided by other men, should also be accused of a lack of race pride.

Negroes not only lack race pride and have an inferiority complex. They have a third handicap — white prejudice. Black people are more prejudiced in favor of the white race than white people are themselves. The black race is a distinctive creation; we possess characteristics which differ from those of any other people in the world. If there is one member of the black race present in an audience, one glance will find him. This is true of no other group. If the audience is large and everyone is dressed more or less alike, a definite search must be made to classify the different racial types with the exception of the Negro.

We have the honor of being exclusive, a distinction which every dealer in merchandise desires for his establishment ; and the primary physical features which give us this distinction are black skin, kinky hair, thick lips, high cheek bones, large hands, feet, and nostrils. The whole world appreciates the exclusive community, home, food, dress, voice, book, and so on. There are, however, very few Negroes who are proud of their exclusive physical appearance.

If this statement is not true, why are so many manufacturers becoming rich through the manufacture of bleaching preparations? Why are hair-straightening combs found in nearly every Negro home? Why is the following remark made so often to a newborn baby, when grandma or auntie visits it for the first time? ‘Tell Mother she must pinch your nose every morning. If she does n’t, you’re gonna have a sure ’nough darky nose.’

The majority of us Negroes are not only ashamed of the physical features of our race, but also opposed to the habits and customs of the race that are ours through natural inheritance. I shall never forget the remark my mother made when my sister began to learn the Charleston dance. (I wish I were positive that she was the only person who made such a statement, but I doubt that seriously.) She said, ‘You act enough like a nigger now without adding that junk to it.’ Did that statement denote race pride? The Charleston is Negroid. Negroes originated it. Why not be proud of it? Many individuals have commercialized dancing. Why should n’t we Negroes commercialize our own ideas?

For generations other races have kept their individual customs. The white race takes pride in reviving, at regular intervals, some hand-me-down custom perhaps two hundred years old. Black Americans are not white Americans. Black Americans are only mimicking white Americans when they waltz, two-step, or fox-trot. When black Americans dance the Charleston, the Susie Q, or the Big Apple they become original. Originality is the backbone of all progress.


It was not until I married that I began to read periodicals published by Negroes. This seems a queer assertion for me to make; at present my boys are agents for every Negro periodical coming into our town, and we all read them. But my father was responsible for this situation.

When I was a small child about ten years of age, my father paid a year’s subscription for two Negro periodicals, which came for three months. What they had in them I cannot say; I was too young to be interested in reading them. I do know, however, that my father was very angry when the agent visited our house. I cannot remember all the conversation, but I know he said, ‘Papers of that kind have no business in circulation. They do more to develop race hatred than anything else in the world. If I were alone, I might take a different attitude. I am not. I have seven children, and I don’t intend to have them hate the white race before they are grown. Those papers do nothing but play up all the faults of white people. We can’t live in the same country with white people and rear our children to hate them.’

The agent asked him if it would be possible for him to read the publications and not let us youngsters see them. ‘I should say not,’ my father replied. ‘My youngsters are to read everything that comes into my house. The stuff in those papers is the most radical junk I have ever read. Whoever edits them has surely forgotten that the citizens of the United States have to live together.’ Then he laughed and said, ‘No, sir, there’s nothing coming into my house that is n’t fit for the children to read. If it comes in we’re all going to read it. If it is n’t fit for some of us to read, it is n’t coming.’

The agent then explained that he did not like to write that statement. The publishers would have to know why the papers were being stopped after three months when they had been paid for a year in advance. It was finally agreed that the subscription should be transferred to one of our neighbors, who wanted the periodicals and did not have the money to pay for them. That ended Negro publications in our home.

I have often wondered whether my father was right or wrong in his attitude. I have often wondered if those publications were written on a more radical basis in those days than now. That was more than twenty years ago. When I reached the age of adolescence and began to earn my own money I often wanted to subscribe for one of the Negro publications. I was curious; I wanted to know what was in them; I wanted to know why my father had become so angry. When I had reached that age, however, the family was in such poor circumstances that any surplus money had to be used to buy clothes. When I was twenty, my mother and father had a grand total of eleven children, and we older ones felt almost as much responsibility for the welfare of the little folk as my father and mother did.

When I married, nearly all the Negro periodicals came regularly to my new7 home, for my husband is greatly interested in current events of every nature. My father was a man of education; he had taught school and was a very deep thinker. My husband is uneducated, not from choice, but because an education was for him an impossibility. I believe he would have been a very successful student had he had the opportunity. My father enjoyed a book of economics, history, philosophy, or mathematics. My husband is more content with the daily newspaper or the Reader ’s Digest. One year during my married life I discovered we were receiving eight different weekly publications, the daily newspaper of our own home town, the daily paper from another town, and three monthly publications. I can’t help feeling that this is some sort of record for a man who has never earned a salary of more than $100 a month.

It was during the first year of my married life that the case of the People of Detroit versus Ossian Sweet held the spotlight. That was the case of a Negro doctor who had a little more money than many of his associates, and who purchased a home within the boundaries of an all-white community. Racial trouble began. A man was killed. The trouble went into the courts, and the late Clarence Darrow represented Dr. Sweet. Mr. Darrow won the case so far as civil law is concerned. A few years later Mrs. Sweet’s health broke and the family moved to Arizona, where she and the baby died.

I did not then, and I do not now, know Dr. Sweet. I know nothing about the circumstances which caused him to purchase that particular house. But I have often wondered why he could find no suitable place among his own people. I am not an advocate of racial segregation. I do not approve of having laws enacted which prohibit a person from living where he pleases in a democratic country. But on the other hand I do not approve of a statement of this kind: ‘Just as soon as I can get enough money I am going to get out of this trashy nigger neighborhood.’ I have heard that statement made by so many individuals of my own race that when I read about a case similar to the Sweet case I begin to wonder. I want to know why the Negro is moving away from his neighbors. Does he have a legitimate reason? Is the neighborhood overcrowded, and is there no room for the family? Is the property selling at too high a price within his neighborhood? I hope so. I hope the family are not moving because of a lack of race pride, or because a raise in salary has made them feel that the people and customs of the black race are too inferior for them to associate with.

As a home-town correspondent for some of the Negro newspapers, I have had a chance to talk to some of the leaders of the black race. In many instances, when I ask about a specific Negro enterprise in the city one of these leaders represents, I find he is so removed from the mass of his own people that he knows nothing about his nextdoor neighbor. It can’t be true that a Negro who attains recognition and position through the help of his own race becomes too important to mingle socially with Negroes. He can’t be ashamed of the customs and habits of his ancestors. Then why does n’t he develop the communities which other members of his race are forced to live in? This can be done by building new houses or remodeling old ones in his same neighborhood.

I hope Dr. Sweet, of that famous case, was forced to move because of the price of property or because of overcrowded conditions. If so, the case was won completely from the standpoint of both moral and civil law. If not, and he moved because he wanted to get out of that ‘trashy nigger neighborhood,’ the moral law was a total loss. Although on the surface we Negroes are challengers of race pride, we do very, very little to win the championship from the other races. Any person who will shun his own people is not, in my opinion, proving that he believes in race pride.


Another unfortunate attitude I find within my own race is regarding employment. We were given our freedom in 1865. Then came the problem of adjusting so many freed persons in the fields of industry. At that time, as a whole, Negroes were fitted only for agriculture and household service. From 1865 to 1910 we controlled the positions of servants in agriculture, hotels, restaurants, clubs, and private homes. Then what did we do? As we became educated, instead of systematically organizing this labor, we did not appreciate our opportunities. We wanted clerical or white-collar jobs. We began to feel that the work we were doing was made for no one but Negroes; and anything that is labeled ‘for Negroes only’ is an insult in the heart of a black man.

We soon classed this employment as second-rate. What is the result? Since 1910 we have watched the Swedes, Germans, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, and so forth, replace our own workers. Why? Because Negroes have very little pride in their own achievements. We have sat idly by and let one of the largest industrial fields of the country, domestic labor, slip beyond our grasp. Domestic labor is an industry which, I dare say, would have produced many a wealthy person, had any other race of people had the chance to dominate it as we did. I have often thought of how the Jews would have made capital of such an opportunity. Household work, had it been monopolized by Jews, would have been one of the best-organized labor divisions in the United States by the time the New Deal inaugurated the now outlawed NRA.

When I speak of organization I do not mean merely organizing to start agitating and bickering for higher wages. That is only the cheap, small part of it. My idea of systematic organizing is first to classify the workers — rate them according to the service they give or the work they perform. If a worker gives expert service or does his work very well his labor is wanted. Employers will bid for a good and conscientious worker, and this condition will force a natural process of higher wages. Such a system would place the industry upon a high level that would command respect.

During the seventy-five years we have had our freedom, household work could have been placed upon such a high level that we should have been recognized everywhere as business managers. Workers would have had an urge to reach the highest in the classification scale. Wages would have been paid according to classification. An employer would know the minute he appeared at an employment agency just what to expect from each individual listed. He would know exactly what type of person he was employing before engaging that person. As it is, Negro labor varies in qualification, and the good have become so mingled with the worthless that employers have classified Negro servants as a whole on a lower level.

Because of our own lack of interest, an industry which provides the livelihood for numerous citizens of the United States is found completely unorganized, and under the new Social Security Unemployment Compensation law those employed in this field receive no protection. This is one result of the fact that Negroes have not been interested in things which were theirs through natural inheritance.

Nearly all my life I have lived in a community where domestic work furnishes the largest portion of employment. When we moved here Negroes held nine out of every ten of these jobs. Everywhere we heard: ‘All a darky can get to do in this town is housework. The place I came from employed Negroes everywhere.’ There was some sort of complaint registered in practically every Negro home. Whenever so many complaints are found, one may always be sure that those people are not doing their best work.

One by one Negroes lost their jobs and were replaced by other workers. In 1932 there were very few Negroes employed anywhere. Then the cry came in full blast: ‘The town would be all right, but a colored man can’t get nothin’ to do. Can’t even get a job doing housework. I never in all my life saw such a place.’ They blamed the employment agencies. They accused the operators of being unfair. None of the complainers, however, seemed to have anything to offer as a remedy for the situation. I began to study the condition. From a complete survey I found that every Negro who still held his job was one I had never heard complaining, ‘All a darky can get to do in this town is housework.’

I watched one man and his wife very closely. They were employed in a private family, where the woman was cook and her husband was yard man and butler. They had lived in the town since 1904, had worked in one family for over twenty years, and had been employed at their present place for ten years. I shall never forget what this man said to me one night. ‘I think a person should make a business out of any kind of work at which he might be employed. I am not an educated man, and I’ve got to make a living. This is the only thing I am fitted for, and believe me, I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna do everything I can to please the man I’m working for and make him like me, whether he wants to or not. Then, if I make a mistake sometime, maybe he’ll overlook it, because he likes me, and I won’t get fired. I look upon my job as a business, and I’m going to make my business a paying proposition.’

That couple owns a downtown building now, the only one in this town owned by Negroes. They have built a home for the wife’s mother (the husband’s mother died when he was just a child). They own a 1938 Buick car and have more cash than any of the other Negroes. This was all due to the fact that they made a business out of a household job. If one Negro couple can do so much without an education, why has the whole of the black race, education and all, failed to organize such a profitable industry? Why are we allowing it gradually to slip from our grasp? I have only this answer: it was controlled by Negroes, and to the mass of black people anything which makes us exclusive has no value. It is but another example of false race pride in the hearts of black Americans.


Here is another puzzle: why are we so ashamed of the historical background of our lives? Why do we object so forcefully to the stories, labors, art, and habits of the old slaves? It is true that slavery was all wrong, and that the civilized world should be 100 per cent against any suggestion of any type of slavery. To me, however, the relics of the old slave customs are antiques too valuable to be sold by the Negroes of to-day. There are very, very few of the old slaves left. Those who remain are too old to bring back the vivid and unusual past. How much of that life have we preserved? I dare say, had it not been for the fact that the white race took pride in preserving some of the quaint sayings and customs of those days, the beginning of the history of Negroes in America would be completely blotted out.

What is prettier than the quaint oldfashioned language of our ancestors? No race in the world spoke with the accent which the Negro slave used. I do not mean that we should make it universal to-day, but I do mean that every book, paper, magazine, and so forth, that contains any reference to that simple language should be clipped and kept as treasure. Had the white race not preserved the poems and works of Paul Laurence Dunbar in their original language, and had Joel Chandler Harris not portrayed the character of Uncle Remus in plantation style, the old-fashioned language of our own ancestors would be gone forever.

Slavery had many horrors — but what race has not had frightful experiences? Are we going to obliterate our past because we happen to have been slaves? Had the manners of the old Negro slave, the doorman, the butler, the maid, and the valet been preserved, we should have surpassed all other races in etiquette to this day. The man who possessed the best manners of all in my home town was a former slave. Many persons of wealth have singled him out as an example when trying to cultivate good manners among the men of their own families. There are very few of our modern youths who can be singled out as examples of courtesy. The younger generation has become so rude that at times we appear ridiculous.

We have become so afraid that we might be accused of acting like the old slaves that many of us are not wanted in good society. Had the good manners of the old slaves been retained, we should have been a pride to any nation. Any other race would have retained some of the better customs of the slave days. However we, who had the sole right to preserve the good parts, have thrown it all into the same heap and pushed it aside. Had it not been for slavery, such songs as ‘Steal Away,’ which bring so vividly to view a picture of the soul and heart found only in the body of a Negro slave, would have forever been unknown. Slavery is a black page in United States history, but that slavery produced the most unusual and exclusive history for a race of people that the world has ever known. But if we, the descendants of that unique race, do not preserve our history, our descendants will have nothing unusual, nothing supreme — just the common everyday background of every other race. The only possible chance for advancement for us as a race is to retain what is our own and add to it.

Not many years ago the senior class of our high school began to practise for their annual play, the setting of which was in the old South. There were a number of Negro slaves to be portrayed, and the instructors had decided to blacken the faces of a number of white students because they were afraid to ask the young Negroes to act those parts. They thought the Negro students would resent such assignments. My sister was a member of that class, and I suggested that she ask her Negro classmates to take the parts of the slaves. I hate imitation; I like real life. I wanted to see the part of the Negro slaves portrayed by Negroes. Out of a total of fifty-four students my sister was unable to find ten who would act those parts, but she did find six. The instructors were delighted, and managed to cut the number needed from ten to six, that they might use real life instead of imitation.

I had discovered what I had been trying to find out for a number of years previous to this experience: why it was that in mixed schools Negro students were seldom used in dramatics; why a white student blackened his face to portray a Negro. This experience answered those questions. We will not be ourselves. We like to imitate. Yet we seriously object to the statement, ‘Monkeys will imitate.’

Since 1865 we have been recognized by other races as a free and independent group of American people. Have we recognized ourselves? Do we as a race recognize our own wealth when it is within reach? Do we exalt ourselves, or do we exalt other races? Many legal battles have been fought through the courts to force other people to respect us. Persons, whether they be white, yellow, brown, red, or black, who gain respect are those who command respect. As long as the following sentences are spoken by ourselves we cannot command respect; —

’I would n’t marry a dark person.’

‘I don’t want a lot of black, nappyheaded children running after me.’

‘I like her, but she’s too dark.’

‘She’d get some place if she was n’t so dark.’

‘She’s got brains, but there ain’t no nigger going to hire anyone that dark, and I know the white folks ain’t.’

‘That man’s too black and ugly to be at the door; he’d drive the devil away.’

If black Americans are prejudiced in favor of white Americans, why should n’t white Americans be prejudiced in favor of white persons? If we are to accomplish and possess what is real and valuable in the world, we must search for the good within other races who are our neighbors, and we must also prove to the world that we are men and women capable of judging and finding the best that is within ourselves. If we exalt that best above all other factors, it is my hope that one day, not too far distant, my race will accept within itself the essential principle of race pride: pride for the things which, through the process of natural inheritance, belong to that particular and distinguished group — American Negroes.