August Meier. Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963.
Our classics book review series has focused on a wide range of important works in the canon of American intellectual history. August Meier’s Negro Thought in America is no different, being a bedrock text of African American intellectual history. Meier’s book explores an important period in American history: the aftermath of Reconstruction until the height of the Progressive Era. Or, to put it another way, from the Compromise of 1877 until the beginnings of the Great Migration and the death of Booker T. Washington.
Meier’s book has had an important influence on African American, and indeed American, history. From the beginning of Negro Thought in America, Meier makes clear the need for understanding African American history within an American context: “…it has been deemed necessary to relate Negro racial thought to currents in the larger stream of American social thought, to the changing conditions under which Negroes lives, and thus ultimately to the general political and economic background of the period.” (x) For Meier, the key to understanding this time period was the way in which African American leaders responded to the changing face of white supremacy in American society. If times were (relatively) good, if the political and intellectual space in America allowed for discussion of civil and political equality—as was the case during the Reconstruction period—then African Americans could press civil and political rights first and foremost. When the strength of white supremacy threatened to subsume America’s fealty to democratic ideals—such as during the end of Reconstruction or the rise of Jim Crow during the 1890s—then African American political and intellectual leaders focused more on self-help, strengthening black institutions, and middle-class sensibilities as a survival tool.
Meier’s work is, above all, a study of both institutions and individuals. The book could have easily been titled Negro Thought and Conventions in American History due to his overarching analysis of African American convention politics during and after the American Civil War. The convention served as a central tenet of African American politics, with the sites of conventions serving as debating centers for the very future of recently freed African Americans. Meier also justifies his use of the conventions as a way to get at broader currents of African American thought during this era. He argues that the conventions, and the institutions he more broadly studies, “shed some light—more light than any other approach would—on the attitudes of the nonvocal, and they also reflect the unvocalized ideas of the articulate.” (ix) Reading Negro Thought in America provides a tour-de-force in how to find sources worthy of analysis for a broad intellectual history of a people who had, at that time, only a small intellectual elite speaking on behalf (and often also speaking to) a population that was mostly uneducated.
In covering so many debates among African Americans—self-help versus assimilation, migration elsewhere versus staying put in the South and/or the United States, pursuing civil rights and political power or economic power—Meier analyzes the writings and speeches of numerous prominent African American intellectuals. However, he refuses to fall into the classic trap of arguing that certain speakers only favored assimilation or self-help and the building of separate institutions. Meier, instead, sees these debates as much about the tactics of dealing with white supremacy in the late nineteenth century as they are about developing a usable ideology for African Americans. His tracing of the arguments made by several prominent African Americans—Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois—all flesh out this argument of Meier’s. He points to the long public careers of each individual (in the case of DuBois having to stop at 1915) and notes when they changed their minds of major issues, or modified their rhetoric to match the prevailing beliefs among African Americans.
In thinking about Negro Thought in America, a few other elements stand out. The lack of women is noticeable. Literature since then on figures such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper, and the role of African American women in black society has picked up the slack and only added to our understanding of this time period. Wanda Hendricks’ book, Fannie Barrier Williams: Crossing the Borders of Region and Race (2014), pays particular attention to an African American clubwoman and intellectual who only receives brief mention in Meier’s book. The classic Righteous Discontent (1992) by Evelyn Higginbotham also expands the definition of African American intellectual and political leaders to include African American women.
The legacy of African American intellectual history—really, African American history in general–since Negro Thought in America has largely been one of responding to Meier’s book. In particular, works covering the same post-Reconstruction period often expand on Meier’s work and the topics it covered. Where Meier spends pages discussing the differences in the African American experiences within various Southern states, historians such as Glenda Gilmore (Gender and Jim Crow, 1996) zeroed in on individual states. For intellectual historians of the African American experience, Meier’s attention to institutions is still a vitally important template. Recent works such as Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness (2012) on the Institute of the Black World, or Cedric Johnson’s Revolutionaries to Race Leaders (2007), on the changing relationship between Black Power advocates and mainstream African American leaders, are but two examples of this template being in use.
Meier’s work was one of the reasons I decided to pursue intellectual history. Not only does it serve as a good and engaging read, Negro Thought in America is also a reminder of the diversity of African American intellectual currents. Today there is far too much talk in national media about African American political attitudes being nothing more than a bloc of votes for the Democratic Party. What is missed is a rich tradition of debate and dissent among African Americans. Such a debate, as Meier skillfully argues, has always been shaped by the power of white supremacy. This is not to rob African Americans of “agency,” but it is to recognize the genuine political, economic, and intellectual hardships African Americans have had to endure within the United States. That relationship molded African American political and social thought for centuries. That it continues to do so means historians will be referring back to Meier’s work for a long time to come.