U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Christian Internationalism, beauty, and friendship

“I shall, above everything else, remember her for her quality of true friendship; such a quality is so rare, so necessary, and so seldom found in any real and enduring sense, that Juliette Derricotte’s conception and practice of it constitute one of her unique gifts to our time. Our race could ill afford to lose such a gifted member; the larger human and spiritual cause which she served transcending race and nation, is now without one of its strongest and proved advocates; the realm of friendship has in its ranks an empty place because we mourn the untimely death of this sweet and gentle soul.”
–Max Yergan

I’m back to editing my Juliette Derricotte chapter. It had been on the “more done” pile, while I tried to finish the “less done” chapters, but unfortunately it is 107 pages long and that’s just a bit too long for a chapter. (Ha!) I had two very kind friends, Keisha Blain and Grace Leslie, read it and give some feedback. Obviously, one of my biggest problems is that the chapter is too long–there are too many details and too many directions. So let me use this space to try to free-write about what exactly it is that I’m doing.

The main points of what I’m doing are indicated by the title of the chapter: “The Spirit of Cooperation: Juliette Derricotte and Christian Internationalism.” Basically, I am showing the connections between the US-based ideas of interracialism (in which Derricotte started her career) and the Christian internationalism she develops through several journeys abroad. And I detail her philosophy of cooperation, which is quite distinct from the African American protest tradition, but not to be equated with Washingtonian accommodation.

The structure of the chapter so far is

I. Introduction (starts with a detailed description of her death after she was injured in a car accident and not taken to the nearby white-only hospital. This is the only thing documented in the literature).
III. US-based interracialism
       a. Harlem
       b. travels
IV. Internationalism
       a. 1922 in Canada
       b. 1924 in Europe
       c. 1928 around the world
           i. introduction to this section
           ii. Europe
           iii. Egypt
           iv. India (longest section b/c this was the longest part of her journey)
           v. brief section on Indonesia
           vi. China
           vii. Korea
           viii. Japan
V. Conclusion (not much about her life between returning from her world-wide journey in 1929 and her death in 1931. I have an article coming out that is about one incident during those years.)

The point, again, is the “spirit of cooperation” that she advocated in her journeys around the United States, visiting white and black schools and urging students to work together towards interracial peace, and in her journeys abroad, where she interacted with men and women who represented many different kinds of ethnic, religious, racial, and political conflict. She believed that “Christian Internationalism” was the effort to bring the Kingdom of God to earth–a place free of racial conflict and full of peaceful fellowship among the nations. Well, actually at one point she questioned whether there would even be races and nations within the Kingdom of God (unlike Mabel Byrd, who advocated a race-conscious internationalism). Derricotte’s purpose on earth was to bring about the Kingdom of God by building friendships among many different kinds of people and transforming individuals so that they would go forth and transform more individuals. She was well acquainted with Du Boisian activism, but chose instead to work within the Christian faith, inspiring individuals rather than changing social structures. (again, this is in distinction to Byrd, who chose Du Boisian protest and communism over individual change).

But, my 60 odd-pages on her journey around the world is about a lot of things that made up her internationalism:

–the difficulty that black people had in finding someone to do their hair (or in Derricotte’s circumstance, learning to do it herself for the first time).

–the love and appreciation of beauty
      –natural beauty in Europe
      –natural beauty in Asia, but also glorying in the beauty of brown bodies in labor, in cultural pursuits, in powerful positions. Rejoicing also in the beauty of man-made structures in Asia, countering assumptions about European superiority.
       –using “beauty” and “ugliness” as moral descriptors instead of “good” and “bad” to describe the religious ceremonies she witnessed. I think this was because she self-consciously did not want to judge the places she was in, but reflexively could not resist responding to them.

–in connection with the last point above, Derricotte gathered much information about worship practices above, in part because she was working on an inter-faith worship book for students.

–response to different kinds of food, an essential part of travel

–interactions with Christian missionaries, YWCA women, and local people. She was buffered from some of the criticism that her friend Howard Thurman faced on a later trip to India because she lived primarily among European, American, and Asian Christians.

–ideas of black internationalism (Marc Gallicchio), “colored cosmopolitanism” (Nico Slate) and politics. Her response to the British and Indian conflict, her response to the 1927 revolution in China, her response to Japanese beauty alongside its discrimination of Korea.

–Her Orientalism in Egypt, and the story of her response to the barter system in shopping as it evolved from Egypt to India to China

–Her own identity expressed in complicated ways–she was an American, a Westerner, a Christian, and a person of color

–Was she a lesbian? Several of her friends were, but I doubt there would ever be evidence given her commitment to Christianity. There is a contemporary rumor that she was. How does one cite a rumor?

–The people she interacted with–Erma Appleby, Winifred Wygal, Max Yergan, and many others.

–The way her letters conform to and resist the patterns established by white travelogues.

–How she compares to the rest of the people in my book. 

–Class and gender analysis. She is solidly middle-class, but in the period in which the politics of respectability are being challenged. She has just about two sentences about her understanding of women’s place in the world. Otherwise, she doesn’t write about gender, though she performs it in interesting ways.

–Comparison to other black internationalists, white peace-activists, interracialists, etc.

So. What do I cut? What is not important? It all feels important to me….and hence I try to cut down my massive chapter and instead end up deleting a few words here or there, explaining something more thoroughly or moving things around.

One of my kind friends said after reading the whole thing, she wasn’t sure what it was about. So obviously I have too much going on.

But more than that, I wonder–is appreciation of beauty important? It was to Derricotte. She wrote about beauty more than anything else by a margin of 2 or more. But how many descriptions of majestic vistas can I quote before I lose my reader? And does going place by place, instead of subject by subject, make this a particular problem? Because she describes beautiful things in every place she goes. I think a lot of readers don’t tend to see the significance of beauty in the same way that Derricotte and I do. Or perhaps I just write about it to excess.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. cutting is always hard. i say let the dissertation chapters bloat if you can do it in such a way that they can be easily disassembled for later use in articles, book chapters, et al.

    is there a connection, or might you argue for one, between aesthetic appreciation and the emphasis on the individual? certainly the beautiful/ugly can be just as universal and imperative as the good/bad, but it seems to me that it tends to emphasize the mystical (kingdom of god is not of this earth) and therefore the individual in a way that the moral judgement does not?

    this is an issue and a connection that i’m interested in in other contexts, and so maybe i’m predisposed to see it everywhere.

    • Thanks for your comment, Eric. I did let the dissertation chapters bloat, but now I’m at the book chapter stage of trying to trim.

      I think that’s very perceptive about the connection between the individual and aesthetic appreciation, particularly the idea of the mystical. I will think about it.

  2. This is fascinating stuff. From what cultural and intellectual traditions was Derricotte drawing from/in dialogue with as she articulated her project of Christian internationalism? You should check out Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities, she writes on utopian discourses of interracial, intercultural, and interfaith community in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, specially through the framework of ethics and aesthetics (it has a wonderful chapter on the young M.K. Gandhi, his vegetarianism, and social networks in London; the book can be a bit theory heavy, as postcolonial scholars can often be, but I am sure you will find something of interest). Spiritual ethics and aesthetics are issues that were often intertwined in cosmopolitan discourses of this era.

    Regarding her sexual identity, if you do not find any substantial evidence to establish it, the “rumor” should be pointed out in a footnote. I would intertwine gender-related issues in your narration of her relations to other similar figures and her travel stories, tracing such kind of relations seems to be key, specially for somebody who seemed to be very invested in the idea of community. Again, sounds like a fascinating project!

    Kahlil Chaar-Pérez

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