I’ve recently read, or am in the process of reading, three books about being black in America around 1900.
A novel I’ve finished is Sport Of The Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar (Drawing above.) It is the bleak story of a black family in New York City at the beginning of the last century. It is bleak. Published in 1902, the book is short and reads like the history of a time and place. It is worth the reading.
Here is an excerpt from this profile: “Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet. Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, he was the son of ex-slaves and classmate to Orville Wright of aviation fame. Although he lived to be only 33 years old, Dunbar was prolific, writing short stories, novels, librettos, plays, songs and essays as well as the poetry for which he became well known. He was popular with black and white readers of his day, and his works are celebrated today by scholars and school children alike. His style encompasses two distinct voices — the standard English of the classical poet and the evocative dialect of the turn-of-the-century black community in America. He was gifted in poetry — the way that Mark Twain was in prose — in using dialect to convey character. ”
I’ve also been reading 2004 book Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey Ward. This story follows the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. I’m about a third of the way through this book. I feel it could be shorter because once you get the idea that white champions were reluctant to fight Johnson, you don’t need to read about every detail of that resistance.Still, the book is holding my interest well enough and I enjoyed learning about Johnson’s youth in Galveston. Everybody should should visit Galveston, Texas.
From an ESPN article about Johnson:
“He transformed himself from the docks of Galveston, Texas, to early 20th-century glitterati. He had his own jazz band, owned a Chicago nightclub, acted on stage, drove flashy yellow sports cars, reputedly walked his pet leopard while sipping champagne, flaunted gold teeth that went with his gold-handled walking stick and boasted of his conquests of whites — both in and out of the ring.
Johnson was also a fugitive for seven years, having been accused of violating a white slavery act with a woman who would become his third wife. ”
Here is a little bit about Mr. Du Bois:
“William Edward Burghardt DuBois, to his admirers, was by spirited devotion and scholarly dedication, an attacker of injustice and a defender of freedom. A harbinger of Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, he died in self-imposed exile in his home away from home with his ancestors of a glorious past—Africa.
Labeled as a “radical,” he was ignored by those who hoped that his massive contributions would be buried along side of him. But, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “history cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man.”
I’ve only reached up to chapter three in Souls. In chapter three, Du Bois is going to discuss Booker T. Washington and others.
The famous line from the book—“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”– is the first sentence and the last sentence of chapter two. Du Bois says this ongoing issue is a “phase” of the same issue that was the cause of the Civil War.
Isn’t a bottom line of our 2008 campaign the question of will America elect a black president named Barack Obama? The “race question” goes on and on, at least so far.
Chapter two is a history of the Civil War years and Reconstruction efforts up until 1872. Du Bois talks about the way the Freedman’s Bureau was doomed to fail from the start in the effort to help Black Americans gain some measure of equality after the Civil War.
I look forward to making it past chapter two and writing more blog posts on this great work of our American history.