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.