U.S. Intellectual History Blog


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.”

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,
    I would just say it directly: “I am not advocating one or the other. Instead I mean to present them both in order to explore what they did.” Then you might explain why you disavow advocacy and what benefit critical distance provides.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, David, but my writing style tends to emphasize nuance over directness. Plus a single direct sentence can be overthrown by the accretion of unconscious choices that lend more credance towards one woman or the other. And then there is letting go at some point to let the reader decide for themselves, because those who prefer protest will tend to agree with Byrd while those who prefer cooperation will tend to prefer Derricotte. And finally, there is the constant need to balance complexity with clear writing. Because the easy thesis is that Byrd = protest and Derricote = cooperation wheras in fact they were both complicated individuals who responded with nuance to many different kinds of situations. Byrd would not have been hired by the New Deal Administration if she did not know how to cooperate on some level. She wouldn’t have had the white friends who went with her to the Congressional Lunchroom and then protested with her when she was refused service. I think I often fight against a strong thesis because I fear it’s possible destruction of nuance and complexity. Or perhaps just because I fear it is not completely accurate, but no generalization/analysis can be utterly accurate in every situation.

  3. Can you recommend sources (either primary or secondary) that engage with this particular debate about the spirit of “interracialism” during this period (first half of the 20th Century). This is directly related to research I am doing now. Thanks!

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