Monday, December 26, 2011

Turning high fashion into politics: Henry Louis Gates Jr. on W.E.B. Du Bois and the New Negro movement of 1900

"African American Girl, Half-Length Portrait,
with Right Hand to Cheek, with Illustrated
Book on Table." 1899 or 1900.

Throughout the month of December WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer conducted a series of interviews with Henry Louis Gates Jr. about his new book Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History 1513–2008. Gates dedicated the book to his father, Henry Louis Gates Sr., who died on Christmas Eve 2010 at the age of 97 and a half. Designed as a “lavishly illustrated coffee table book,” the volume selects some 789 illustrations from the 26,000 in the archives of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute (where Gates is the Director) to “recreate the sense of wonder” one gets in seeing a period of history brought visually to life.

In the second interview Gates describes how W.E.B. Du Bois turned “high fashion into politics” in creating the Negro Exhibit at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900:
Lehrer: For the rest of today we will linger around the turn of the twentieth century. Your section on that is titled “New Negro, Old Problem.” What does the term New Negro refer to? 
Gates: This is my favorite period in African American history. My colleagues look at me and say, “Why?” For the Negro it was the end of the world. Remember: the Civil War ends in 1865. Reconstruction is 1866 to 1876. The first black senator is elected. Black members of the House of Representatives. Black people had never been freer. But because of the Hayes-Tilden Compromise—Rutherford B. Hayes becomes president—the Reconstruction period ends and a huge onslaught against black people begins. And it culminates in the 1890s with the birth of Jim Crow laws. Most people don’t realize that those separate but equal laws really were codified in 1890 and reached a zenith in 1896. 
What happened in the race was that a lot of black people became migrants and started migrating north as early as 1890. And here’s what happened within the race and it’s something that a lot of people don’t talk about or don’t want to talk about. Remember that you had these established free Negro communities in the north—slavery was abolished here in Massachusetts in 1783—so you had these long established lower middle class and middle class but free and literate black communities. All of a sudden these free Negroes are being confronted by illiterate Southern rural sharecroppers, former slaves. And a huge cultural clash ensues.

So in 1894 someone writes an essay and says “these people are Old Negroes. Those of us in the north are New Negroes.” By 1900 Booker T. Washington himself publishes a book, A New Negro for a New Century. And the new Negroes would be distinguished from the old Negroes. The new Negroes would be educated, they would be refined. They would embody what my colleague the historian Evelyn Higginbotham calls “the politics of respectability.” And they would be the vanguard of the race. They would be the part of the black community—Du Bois went on to call them “The Talented Tenth”—that would be most readily positioned to integrate, and be seen as equals with their white middle class counterparts. So in a way the Old Negro/New Negro movement was the first public class schism within the race.

Lehrer: This section of your book includes two contrasting photo essays. One of portraits of well-dressed black people – what you call the New Negro. The other being photos of sambo art. Did you juxtapose the two for this reason?

Gates: Absolutely. The photo essay you refer to was done by the great W.E.B. Du Bois. I’ll remind listeners that he was the first black man to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, and he was the greatest black intellectual of all. Essentially they were World Fairs but they weren’t called World Fairs then. There had been one in Chicago called the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 which prevented black people officially from being part of it. And then Booker T. Washington gave his famous Atlanta Exposition speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895.

The one in Paris in 1900 was called the Paris Exposition Universelle. Du Bois was determined to establish the presence of the Negro there. So he and his Fisk University classmate—Du Bois went to historically black Fisk before he went to Harvard so he had two Bachelor’s degrees—he and his classmate, Thomas Calloway, a black lawyer, assembled this collection of photographs of these amazingly well-dressed and well-heeled upper-class black people into two albums. One was called “Types of American Negroes,” the other was called “Negro Life in Georgia, USA.” Listeners can see the whole collection online at The Library of Congress website.

There was one black congressman left in the House of Representatives. He was George Henry White from North Carolina. He would be the last black congressman to serve—he left office in 1901— until 1928. One of the last things he did was to get Du Bois $15,000 to fund what they called the Negro Exhibit. It opened on April 14, 1900, and it showed the most successful middle class African American men, women, skilled workers and business people. It showed their good taste in clothing and furnishings and culture. The pictures are full of people surrounded by books and pianos. It even included charts and graphs and maps and copies of patents black people had filed for, and lists of books written by black authors, over 1,400 books. It was the proof of the existence of the New Negro.

Lehrer: It was fashion and high culture as a civil rights strategy.

Gates: You got it. David Levering Lewis, the great historian, wrote a book about the Harlem Renaissance and he said, the Harlem Renaissance was civil rights by copyright. This was civil rights by middle class photography. And there were two reasons why Du Bois felt he had to do it. The first was the birth of Jim Crow. Separate but equal laws that had come into being since 1890, culminating with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. But the second was this huge proliferation of what we call sambo art. Every place a middle class white person looked from the time they shut off their alarm in the morning and went downstairs: their tea cosy, their egg cup, postcards, trade cards, advertisements. Every place they looked they saw a deracinated sambo image. This is horrible but you could even go into a drug store on vacation and buy a postcard of a lynched black man and mail it . . . They also would show black people stealing chickens, looking lasciviously at white women, stealing watermelons, eating watermelons . . .

Lehrer: That’s how black people were depicted in popular culture art to white people and Du Bois was trying to counter that with these other images.

Gates: Du Bois was trying to deconstruct it and it led to two or three New Negro movements between 1900 and 1925 culminating in the Harlem Renaissance, which was also known as the New Negro Movement.
Also of interest:
Photo credit: W.E.B. Du Bois Albums of Photographs of African Americans in Georgia Exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. 

Related LOA works: W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings (includes “The Talented Tenth”); American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton (includes Booker T. Washington’s Address at the Atlanta Exposition); Harlem Renaissance Novels (boxed set)

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