U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"How does it Feel to be a Problem?" or the Etymology of "the Negro Problem"

This is not so much a post as a plea for help. Throughout my dissertation work, I’ve been thinking about terminology largely in a functional way. How do I describe the vast system of discrimination and injustice that African Americans faced during my period (interwar)? Often “segregation” is used as a shorthand, but it does not adequately convey the range of racism from the North to the South. Do people think of Richard Wright being rejected from every hotel in New York City (even in Harlem) in the 1930s when I say segregation? Plus, there were whites who supported segregation but condemned lynching.

Similarly, how do I discuss individuals and groups that reacted to this system on various levels? Activist is a nice catch-all word, but not all acted directly (is education activism? is avoiding harassment? is unconscious protest? is a speech? an interracial friendship? is breaking tools?). Civil rights is another catch-all term, but many groups did not actually fight for civil rights–they fought for economic justice, or they encouraged interracial cooperation, or they protected and cared for the physical needs of new migrants to the north. Another term that has come into popular usage to describe all resistance is the Black Liberation Movement.

During the interwar period, there were two or three common terms used. One is “interracialism,” but this was often used expressly to connote cooperation between the races, not necessarily supporting African American culture or caring for economics. I’ve noticed it used much more among Christians, women, and white groups (see my hopefully soon to be published article on YWCA national student secretary Juliette Derricotte). Another term is “race relations.” This could be the same as interracialism, but it is much wider in intent. Race relations included protesting lynching, supporting African Americans within all black environs, and working with whites without necessarily establishing close friendships (as Derricotte supported).

Finally, there was the term “Negro Problem.” It was ubiquitous, such that even African Americans used it (though I have heard this denied). I have seen Du Bois use it even after his famous discussion of it in Souls of Black Folk, referenced in the title of this post. Sometimes in an ironic way. Sometimes in an evaluative way. And sometimes simply to get beyond the simple fact of acknowledging there was a problem and on to the weightier issue of solving it. Most African American intellectuals (at least that I study) by the 1930s resisted “Negro Problem” when they used it. More commonly, they tried to use a long sentence or paragraph to explain just what issues they were discussing. And they argued that it was much more a “white problem” than a black one.

Paternalistic whites also interested in solving the “Negro Problem” tended to use the term with less irony or critique. Many wanted to help blacks, without interacting with them as peers. And, unconsciously or not, they viewed the problem as if it would not exist if blacks were not in the country–in other words, as a function of the existence of blacks, not as a function of white racism. For example, at the first Swarthmore Race Relations Institute in 1933, a newspaper summary explained that this had been discussed (the question marks come from unreadable parts of my photocopy):

In discussing the subject “Race as a World Problem” a special effort was made to impress the fact upon the minds of the gathering that the American race problem is by no means [???] greater problem of minority groups everywhere. An earnest appeal to all to [?] an objective point of view as a means of seeing the problem more clearly and acting on it more intelligently was voiced repeatedly. Striking similarities between our problem and those of Japan, India, South Africa, and Germany were pointed out. Analogies to the Mexican problem in Texas and the Oriental problem in California were also drawn.*

This quote recognizes similarities between German persecution of Jews and Japanese persecution of the Chinese with white American’s treatment of black Americans. Yet the language still fundamentally sounds like it is the minorities’ fault for being a “problem.”

The Race Relations Institute was composed of the leading scholars, white and black, of the day gathering to discuss specific techniques in improving race relations, drawn from objective, scholarly research. (It was held a month before the Second Amenia Conference, sponsored by the NAACP, which forms the lynch pin of my dissertation. The Institute and the Amenia Conference shared several participants, but the Amenia conference was almost all black, so the terms of the debate were quite different).

Anyway. I would like to know if anyone has ever studied the etymology of the “Negro Problem.” Instead of simply searching for my own language, I would like to actively analyze the language used within the discussions I am critiquing. Perhaps this seems obvious, but there are a lot of other things going on within the discussions that I had been studying first. My initial search hasn’t brought up anything yet. Do you have recommendations?

I leave you with this excellent quote from James Baldwin:

What I try to suggest is that the terms in which people speak about the Negro problem have nothing to do with human beings. There seems to be some extraordinary assumption on the part of a great many people in the American Republic that Negroes are either saints or devils, that the word ‘Negro’ describes something, and it doesn’t. There isn’t such a thing as a Negro, but there is such a thing as a boy, or a man, or a woman, who may be brown, or white, or green, or whatever; but when you say ‘the Negro problem,’ you create a big monolith, and beneath this wall are thousands of millions of human beings’ lives which are being destroyed because you want to deal with an abstraction.**

*Hunt, Charles L. “Swarthmore College Race Relations Meeting Successful” [Tribune] August 31, 1933 Box 9 RG 2, Committee on Race Relations Collection, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College. Hunt was then at the University of Philadelphia, a “Temple U. graduate and recipient of a scholarship to the Institute of Race Relations held last month at Swarthmore. He writes of the Institute in this week’s Tribune.”

** Baldwin, James, and François Bondy. “The Negro Problem.” Transition, no. 75/76 (1997): 82-86. Reprint of a 1964 interview.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. in France, all through the 19th century, there was much discussion of ‘the social question.’ i sort of had in my head from reading around Du Bois that a similar term was sometimes used in the US (that is, ‘the negro question’ rather than ‘problem.’) is this vague impression true?

  2. You’re right. It is similar to the “Jewish question” in Europe and America. In many ways it often had a similar tone to “Negro problem” in that it makes the existence of minorities the center of the a question.

  3. I, too, immediately thought of “the Jewish Question,” a phrase which apparently first appeared in the 18th century and became common in the 19th century, especially after the publication of Bruno Bauer’s The Jewish Question and Marx’s On the Jewish Question in the 1840s.

    Checking the NY Times online archives, the first use of the phrase “the negro problem” in the Grey Lady appears to be in a December 16, 1861 letter to the Editor signed “WLB” and entitled “The Negro Problem” that argued against colonization (which the writer explicitly associates with Lincoln) and in favor of emancipation.

    FWIW, the earliest JSTOR hit is in an 1864 pamphlet, published in NY, entitled “Miscegenation: the theory of the blending of the races, applied to the American white man and negro,” which argues in favor of the blending of the two races: “the solution of the negro problem will not have been reached in this country, until public opinion sanctions a union of the two races.”

  4. I’ve seen several references to the “labor question” (in, for example, Looking Backward) and the “woman question” as well. I always had the impression that, in this context, “problem” and “question” were pretty much interchangeable, in that they were maddeningly and more-or-less intentionally vague. Are the questions, “When are women going to have equal rights with men?” or “What are we going to do to prevent the exploitation of workers?” Doubtful.

  5. to address your initial question/request more directly, it seems to me really to be a question of the degree to which one believes in a unified system of racial discrimination. it is possible to argue, i think, that the racial order in previously slave-holding states was radically different than that in ‘free’ states. urban and rural situations were different. Life in New Orleans was shaped very differently (before and after emancipation) than in agricultural parts of Louisiana. so maybe one doesn’t, after all, want a single term to treat what isn’t really a single reality? the principle of unification must be the federal government, right? if such is the case, then your terms should reflect this.

    ‘the jim crow south’ is certainly used, but then this doesn’t cover the north. Do people say ‘jim crow america’? I think i’ve read things like: ‘the US/American racial order/system.’ that somehow gets at the governmental aspects of the thing.

    also: might the distinction between racialism and racism be useful?

    also: that baldwin quote is wonderful and wonderfully paradoxical.

  6. I have come to the conclusion that a catch all term is not terribly useful. For your second point about government complicity, I sometimes use “American apartheid.”

    I keep thinking about it, though, because I’m studying groups of intellectuals and activists interested in solving [the problems that confronted African Americans in the United States; fixing white racism]. They are not necessarily dealing with local, specific problems, but confronting national and international issues. I’ve come to the understanding that thoroughly probing their critiques and solutions involves looking at their definitions of the problems and questions they faced. It can be too easy to slip into their language without suitably analyzing it.

  7. To answer your question: there is no term that will solve your problem. So put a brief section called “Note on Usage” (or something like that) in your introduction and cut and paste what you have written here.

  8. Lauren,

    There are several questions in your post, so I’m not sure which is of the highest priority. But following this discussion thread, I think that “the negro question” (I like the singularity, the unity, of the article) seems a sufficient catch-all for the period. Why? Because, paradoxically, there were so many questions related to culture, politics, class, gender, etc. The unifying notion is blackness.

    – Tim

  9. My main question is–has anyone studied the etymology of the term “Negro question” or “Negro problem?” And how would I even go about searching for that (given that “etymology” is not likely to pop up in the title). Searching for “the history of the Negro question” gets me information about the status of black people in America, not an analysis of the way that term has been used. Have any of you ever searched similarly for the history of a phrase or a name?

    I could certainly do this myself, but at the moment it is tangential to what I am doing in my dissertation and I’m focusing towards on the finishing line.

    Thanks for all the feedback. I’ve been enjoying reading it.

  10. my sense (very much that of an outsider in terms of field) is that not enough work has been done on the ‘discourses’ of race and civil rights in the 19th and 20th centuries. the work on this kind of thing in the 1980s had a very different orientation (henry louis gates, et al); it was not at all interested in the kind of ‘objective’ account of usage that is what you want.

    more recent historians have moved away from discursive analysis because it is associated with a particular kind of (literary) history, itself associated with identity politics.

    all this, it seems to me, is too bad. i would, for instance, be very interested in a broadly inclusive history of usage around race since 1950. so much depends on what people are simply not allowed to say any longer! but what is that? what was that?

    so…i second the suggestion that you write a foundational article here.

  11. Lauren,
    I can’t think of any article that conducts an explicit archaeology of the Negro problem, but you might check out these books/articles, which might have something of use to you (they also might be tangential to your concern):

    Davis, David L., “The ‘Negro Question’: Philanthropy, Education, and Citizenship in the Gilded-Age South” (PhD diss., Rice University, 2007).

    Holt, Thomas C. “The Political Uses of Alienation: W.E.B. Du Bois on Politics, Race and Culture, 1903-1940.” In Intellectuals and Public Life: Between Radicalism and Reform, edited by Leon Stephen T. Leonard Donald M. Reid Fink, 236-256.

    Holt, Thomas C. “W.E.B. DuBois’s Archaeology of Race: Re-reading ‘The Conservation of the Races.'” In W.E.B. Du Bois, Race and the City: The Philadelphia Negro and Its Legacy, edited by Michael Katz and Thomas Sugrue, 61-76. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1998.

    Appiah, Anthony. “The Uncompleted Argument: DuBois and the Illusion of Race.” In Writing and Difference, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 21-37, 1986.

    You also might find something in: Weiner, Mark S. Americans without Law: The Racial Boundaries of Citizenship, New York: New York University Press, 2006.

  12. also: Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race, 1996. Maybe you already know this book–it deals with some of these issues, but in the pre-WWI period. a good book, and as i recall conscious of terminological issues.

  13. I think this issue had to do with the fact that Africans/Blacks and their/our status as slaves was a problem for capitalism and slave mongers who had brought them/us here. This is largely because it was a humanitarian contradiction and because we did not accept it! Thus our enslavement was a “problem” for those who had wanted us and our friends to be compliant! We were never compliant, thus a problem!

  14. I would also suggest looking at Ronald A. T. Judy’s work in this area
    and of course Frantz Fanon’s. see the citations below:

    Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. 1952. Trans. Charles Lam
    Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

    Judy, Ronald A. T. (Dis)Forming the American Canon : African-Arabic
    Slave Narratives and the Vernacular. Minneapolis: University of
    Minnesota Press, 1993.

    I would also recommend Jared Sexton’s work that delves deeply into the
    problematic question of blackness:

    Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes : Antiblackness and the Critique
    of Multiracialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

    And Frank Wilderson’s memoir of his experiences in South Africa and
    the US as someone who writes about blackness as being a captive in

    Wilderson, Frank B. Incognegro : A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid. 1st
    ed. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2008.

  15. Hi Lauren,

    I’m wondering if you discovered anything more about the etymology of the term ‘The Negro Problem’. This would be very useful to me as I research for a project looking at Gunnar Myrdal’s ‘An American Dilemma’.

    Links – your dissertation – anything would be useful!


    Kelly Thomson
    Boston, MA

Comments are closed.