The Souls of Black Folk: Evolving Conceptions of Leadership in African American Literature and Culture
By Kevin Bair
This paper will explore the concept of freedom as it applies to the black community during the 19th and 20th centuries. The notion of freedom had varied and sometimes contradictory meanings as defined by black leaders Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), Alexander Crummell (1819-1898), Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) which hindered them from establishing a common goal of unity within black society.
This paper will also look at how the terms free and freedom are used by the founding fathers in The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution, and by President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Furthermore, I will put forth that Lincoln and the founding fathers, in their declarations, ignored the existence of the blacks, thus making it even more difficult for black leaders to unify their brethren and prepare them for freedom.
The Webster dictionary states Free as “having the legal and political rights of a citizen – setting the slave free”, “enjoying civil and political liberty – free citizens”, “enjoying political independence or freedom from outside domination – This is a free country”, “enjoying personal freedom…You are free to do whatever you want.” (Merriam-Webster)
Freedom is described as the “absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” Or, a “liberation from slavery, restraint or from the power of another – Independence” (Merriam-Webster). These definitions suggest varied notions of freedom but do not clarify how one applies it judiciously.
In 1862, when Lincoln penned the words “by virtue of the power… I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves …henceforward shall be free” (Lincoln, 1862). This author wonders if he pondered the meaning of the word ‘free’, with its many connotations, while drafting the iconic document.
While creating our governing rules, neither Lincoln nor our forefathers gave any indication as to how they interpreted the term freedom. The authors and the public at that time can only know what this word meant to them as they did not clarify it in their writings. For a better understanding of freedom, this author turns to three great men of the law Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle.
The Roman Statesman Cicero states, “If the people however are uppermost and rule everything at their own pleasure, that is called liberty; nevertheless, it is licentiousness” (Cicero, p. 1456). He also remarks, “Liberty the sweetest of all blessings, and which if it is not equal for all, is not liberty” (Cicero, pp. 717-719). In The Laws, Plato understood the dangers of unbridled freedom. He believed the free needed a competent statesman to guide them, someone to congeal both freedom and order (Plato, p. Location 5645). Additionally, he writes that without this statesman’s guidance there would be no common goals, thus giving the State and its people a disorganized feeling (Plato, p. Kindle Location 25068). “The true statesman is he who brings order out of disorder” (Plato, p. Kindle Location 5641). “How to unite freedom with order is the problem which he [the statesmen] has to solve” (Plato, pp. 5646-5647).
According to Aristotle, every person within the democracy must be accountable to each other, and they cannot do as they please for “where absolute freedom is allowed, there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in every man” (Aristotle, p. Kindle Location 33219).
Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero demonstrated there is danger and discontent when freedom and liberty are left unrestrained. Since the blacks were freed without any statesmen to guide their unbridled concept of freedom, the people lacked unity making it difficult to develop an understanding of their new freedom thus hindering the chances of solidarity and upward mobility.
Fredrick Douglass, in his 1886 speech The Future of the Colored Race, stated “It is quite impossible, at this early date, to say with any decided emphasis what the future of the colored people will be” (Douglass F. , p. Kindle Edition 513). This speech occurred 26 years after Lincoln freed the slaves. Douglass acknowledged the lack of guidance for the emancipated as many were floundering. They did not have a knowledgeable Virgil to lead them from their Hell into Paradiso. As Aristotle predicted 2500 years ago, without proper guidance the freemen and their States will be disorganized. I believe this statement reflects the life of newly emancipated blacks during this period, especially in the South.
To Douglass, freedom came not from being released from bondage, but from learning to read. Douglass said his Master, Mr. Auld, was against slaves learning to read. Auld said, “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…. if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave” (Douglass F. , p. Kindle Edition 40). Mr. Auld was right because in 1838, after learning to read, Douglass ran away. Douglass said reading was his “pathway from slavery to freedom”. (Douglass F. , p. p. i)
Furthermore, Douglass in the same speech envisioned freedom for blacks at a grander scale. He predicted freed blacks and whites will morph into one physical race of blended people. “My strongest conviction as to the future of the negro therefore, is that he will not be expatriated nor annihilated, nor will he forever remain a separate and distinct race from the people around him, but that he will be absorbed, assimilated, and will only appear finally… in the features of a blended race” (Douglass F. , pp. Kindle Edition 514-515)).
Douglass’ image of freedom by assimilation only works for those who subscribe to interracial relations. However, this arrangement did not address the immediate needs of his fellow blacks. Reading for freedom was also excellent advice but again did not address their immediate needs. Still, reading would empower many, and as with Douglass, it presented unknown opportunities.
In the 1880’s, black literacy was desperately needed. According to Wikipedia, during that time there were 6.58 million blacks and 43 million whites in this country (Wikipedia, 2017). Robert A. Margo in his book, Race and Schooling in the South, 1880-1950: An Economic History, explains blacks in 1880, age 10 and over, had an illiteracy rate of 76.2%. This suggests that over 5 million blacks were illiterate. White illiteracy rates for age 10 and over was 21.5%, or roughly 9 million (Margo, p. 7).
Not all black leaders agreed with Douglass. Reverend Alexander Crummell, in his 1889 book, The Race Problem In America, believed that assimilation of the races would not and could not happen. “And even if it were, amalgamation would be an impossibility. How can any one [sic] persuade seven or eight millions of people to forget the ties of race ?” (Crummell, p. 11). Furthermore, he states that social mingling of blacks and white must be forgotten “forever” (Crummell, p. 13) . Crummell made known to his audience, that any person of any race or class, who complains when they are denied access to another enclave in which they are not wanted, is a person who lacks dignity (Crummell, p. 13). Crummell suggests it is up to blacks and whites to address and resolve the matter of equality within “civil and political life” (Crummell, p. 13). Similar to Douglass, Crummel’s plans do not include immediate relief for his constituents.
In 1895, Booker T. Washington in his Atlanta Exposition Address, provided his own vision of freedom. In his speech, he indicated social equality of blacks was a ridiculous thought, that is, until they have something solid to contribute to society. He felt blacks needed representation in the industrial markets. He championed the philosophy that hard work brings rewards, such as freedom. He believed hard work would prepare blacks for when the additional liberties and rights would be granted (Washington, p. Kindle Edition 85).
In the speech, he tells the story of meeting a 65-year-old black man who was living in desperate conditions of poverty. Booker T said to the man, “”If you are worthy of your freedom, you would surely have changed your condition during the thirty years of freedom which you have enjoyed.” Whereas the poor old illiterate man said, “I do want to change…but I do not know how, —I do not know what to do” (Washington, p. 496). This example exemplified the blacks’ marginalization demonstrating their lack of cohesiveness and leadership.
According to Washington, this was a turning point for him, for now he understood the “great masses” needed “captains of industry” to provide educational skills to lift these blacks to freedom. Furthermore, he indicated in his speech that there had been too many blacks who believed freedom meant doing nothing or only what they pleased (Washington, p. Kindle Edition 79). He felt this reflected poorly on the community.
Mr. Washington had a firm grasp on how to obtain his vision of freedom through industrial work and education. Many educated blacks rebuked Washington’s plan however, for it seemed like a life of factory servitude. Yet Washington’s plan did address the immediate needs of his people.
This lack of cohesiveness in the black leaders’ approach to freedom fits the description of President Lincoln’s quote “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Stob, p. 450). It is this lack of solidarity which created the division that hindered the blacks’ quest for freedom.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, in his 1903 speech The Talented Tenth, offered his vision of freedom. Like Douglass and Washington, Du Bois was adamant for educating blacks. But, unlike the rudimentary reading skills Douglass was referring to and unlike Washington’s industrial trade skills, Du Bois was focused on finding the brightest blacks and preparing them for higher education. His plan was to train highly intelligent and talented men to become the nucleus for guiding blacks to greater awareness of self; teaching them Zeno of Citium type concepts of stoicism where the highest good is based on knowledge. His goal was this enlightenment would guide them to a better life for themselves and their race.
Du Bois states “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men” (Du Bois, p. Kindle Location 17991). Du Bois’ plan is to create an elite leadership group of cultivated and highly educated blacks. He calls this groups The Talented Tenth. In his speech, he relates how proper teaching of men is “a difficult and intricate task”, and it must be carried out by “educational experts” (Du Bois, p. Kindle Location 17994).
Du Bois provides further details on his vision of freedom fighters. He explains how The Talented Tenth will sift through the blacks, pulling up the worthy; those who are “worth the saving up to their vantage ground” (Du Bois, p. Kindle Location 18073). This plan coincides with his statement that nations are built from the top. Therefore, blacks must set their sights higher in order to obtain civilized freedoms. “Was there ever a nation on God’s fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward” (Du Bois, p. Kindle Location 18072).
By the 1950’s and 60’s, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sprang forth trying to unify the blacks in their quest for freedom. He also comes to the stage with a different version of what freedom is and how to obtain it.
In 1963, he gave his iconic I have a dream speech where he states, “When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and The Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir” (King, 1963). He was telling his audience that freedom was promised to all American citizens by The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
King, a true educated statesman, exemplifies Plato’s vision of this role. King found a central argument, a common goal to give his State and his followers, an organized feeling of hope and power.
One problem in using The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for political leverage is one must understand who the author’s’ intended beneficiaries were. The Constitution states, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” (Constitutional Convention (United States)). What is meant by ‘ourselves’?
Additionally, there is a section in the Declaration that fits the blacks’ cry of freedom, “We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury” (United States Congress ). Here, the subjugated Colonial men seek to end the English king’s tyranny, which is no different than what the blacks seek from their white oppressors.
Due to their discordant lens of liberty, the black leaders discussed in this paper did not promote a harmonious vision or understanding of how or what freedom was; unlike our forefathers who united in a common cause for their independence (freedom from an oppressive ruler). The paragraph quoted below from John Jay, a founding father, gives insight as to the mentality of the group, and who they perceived as eligible for the liberties granted through the rights declared in The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
John Jay (President of the Second Continental Congress (1779 to 1782)), remarks in the Federalist Paper No. 2, “…Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people— a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence” (Hamilton, 2014).
The founding fathers did not include the black slaves as freedmen when they drafted the The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. Because of this flaw, over the Centuries, many whites have put roadblocks into the pathway for the blacks and their much desired liberty.
The exclusion of blacks in the building of this Republic is a foundational design flaw of which Lincoln warned. He cautioned that building a house divided would eventually fall. The irony of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is that he added another crack to the already faulty foundation by freeing the blacks without a plan to integrate them as citizens; thus in many respects, kept them in a bondage without the chains.
For the black leaders discussed, each had a vision of freedom for the emancipated. Unfortunately, none of these men had enough resources available to unify their race, nor were they able to pass down any concrete methodologies for newer black generations to construct solidarity and find the freedoms they have long been seeking.
“Freedom hath been hunted round the globe” (Paine, 2016).
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