I’m thinking a lot about interracialism in the 1920s and 1930s these days. About what white liberals expected out of it, why many more black women seemed involved in it than black men, and also why African Americans pursued it or did not. Interracialism was a sort of synonym for interracial dialogue which would lead to lasting change in American society (often at an individual level which would lead to changes in attitude and thus less racism, rather than directly confronting structural racism).
I really appreciate this quote from Marion Cuthbert at the 1933 NAACP annual conference. Her speech was entitled “Honesty in Race Relations.” She had been lambased the year before for taking a position as a national secretary in the Young Women’s Christian Association by Carter G. Woodson, who viewed her career choice as a kind of concession to segregation. The YWCA had been working throughout the 1920s to desegregate parts of their organization. By 1933, they did not hold national conventions at segregated hotels, but continued to have segregated local divisions. One of the biggest problems was that the “central” branch in a city (read white) had financial control over the “neighborhood” branch (read black).
Frances Wilkins, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and Mabel Byrd were much more forthright and direct in their protest of the segregation and more particularly discrimination within YWCA ranks than Cuthbert and her friend Juliette Derricotte. Yet Derricotte and Cuthbert achieved higher levels of power (perhaps this is not a “yet” but an obvious thing–those who work well with whites would be more likely to rise in an organization. But that does not mean they are necessarily “Uncle Toms”) I am trying to figure out how to write about this without suggesting I prefer either group’s approach. Protest and cooperative language both have a place. And all these women were exceedingly intelligent, brave, and talented. It’s always interesting (and frustrating) to think about what our language accomplishes in its tone, especially when the author does not mean that. Readers think I am advocating one or the other when I mean to present them both and explore what they did.
Here’s Cuthbert’s quote (from Reel 9 of the NAACP 1 microfilm series):
“I do not know of any word that has had more different kinds of meaning attached to it in the last ten years than our word inter-racial. There have been shades of sentiments, variations of technique, degrees of stress, all of them laboring in some degree under the interracial program or interracial concept. For some people the inter-racial experience has been one so inept, so futile and so sentimental that they have become nauseated and have refused to consider any such part of our American problem. For other people and other groups it has seemed some sort of magic device to appoint an interracial committee and a hoary peace has descended upon such groups once the committee has been appointed, in the true American fashion of taking care of our troubles by that device. For other people the work that has come to be called interracial has been a real insight into the most pressing of our present day social problems, that one of race.”