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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

John Lewis and “the Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro”: Erasing History

National Award-Winning Play (2019) by Stacey Rose performed at the Barrington Stage Company

“The “America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of The American Negro” was a play performed at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, from June 14 to June 30, 2019. The Barrington Stage Company had sponsored a national new play contest. The winner received a reward of $25,000 and a World Premiere production at its theater. Stacey Rose was the winner for this play. I saw the final performance. Some of the shows had audience discussions afterwards with members of the cast or the playwright but not at the performance I saw. I did speak very briefly with the playwright but nothing of significance that I recall. I thought of this play about the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro with the death of John Lewis.

SYNOPSIS

In a review of the play, Barbara Waldinger, Berkshire On Stage (June 23, 2019) wrote:

This play, a futuristic dystopia, is decidedly not typical summer fare.  In a play-within-a-play, a troupe of four African-American actors perform a revisionist history of the American Negro in four chronological parts, which essentially maintains that the “demise of the American Negro was brought about by his own hand” and “by his own actions,” despite the loving care and “noble efforts of the American government and American culture.”  Resurrecting the minstrel show style of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the playwright deploys outrageous caricatures ostensibly to demonstrate, using song and dance, how the Founding Fathers saved the African savages. Minstrelsy, a sad chapter in the history of the American theatre, has been put to ironic use in the recent past. 

In chilling voiceover announcements the presumably white audience is warned against documenting what is seen onstage, and, what is worse, advised when to disengage the safety locks on their firearms.

Speaking of firearms, as I recall the NRA figured prominently in the closing scenes.

That reviewer attended one of the post-performance discussions. She reports the playwright

Deplor(ed) the fact that history is taught in the U.S. through a white supremacist lens, asked the audience to share their memories of the first time they realized there was a split between how whites versus blacks experience America.  Acknowledging that it is uncomfortable to do the right thing, Rose clearly wants to encourage us to not only talk about this issue but hopefully step up and do something about it.  If this play helps to begin that conversation, it will have succeeded.

The play was performed roughly one year prior to George Floyd’s murder. Presumably it would be different if it had been written now.

PERIODIZATION

Although, set in the near future, the play does raise the question about the demise and extinction of the American Negro. The issue need not be raised solely in a physical sense. It can be asked in a cultural sense related to the meaning of “Negro” in American history. For example, as a subscriber to The New York Times, I receive weekly emails about articles and events (in addition to the multiple daily notices). On June 27, 2020, the message from Marc Lacey, the National editor of The New York Times, was:

My father was born a Negro. Then he was black. Late in life, much to his discomfort, he became an African-American.

Everyone in this country who traces their ancestors back to Africa has experienced a panoply of racial identifiers over their lives, with some terms imposed and others embraced. In the course of a single day in 2020, I might be called black, African-American or a person of color. I’m also labeled, in a way that makes my brown skin crawl, as diverse, ethnic or a minority.

In an online presentation Historical Perspectives on Whiteness: An Intersectional Conversation with Nell Painter (July 8, 2020) by NYU, historian Nell Painter commented on this issue in passing. She said she had been raised with the word “Negro” as a respected term. She made this point after referring to Lift Every Voice and Sing as the “Negro National Anthem.” She then politically-corrected herself to say “Black National Anthem” and explained her “politically incorrect” language. These examples are part of the “sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro.”

Like Lacey’s father and Nell Painter, John Lewis, (1940-2020), was born a Negro. He was a Negro during the formative years of his life. His values derive from this period. Even if he did not use that term to refer to himself anymore, from a historical and cultural perspective, like Lacey’s father, being a Negro defined who he was in his own mind. What did that mean? How did it differ from the other terms used? Lacey doesn’t identify who imposed the racial identifiers on the Middle Passage people or how they were able to do so. They do not appear to have been white. He does not seem have been enamored of all the name changing which has occurred.

To help understand the use of and the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro, I propose that the time from 1865 to 1965 be considered the Negro Century. These are not hard and fast dates, just guidelines.

THE NEGRO CENTURY

Two dates have figured prominently in recent national news. First in 2019, the year 1619 marked the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Middle Passage Africans to a British colony, Virginia, in what became the United States. Second in 2020, Juneteenth for the end of slavery in Texas and therefore in the country in 1865 became unexpectedly prominent.

By 1865, many states already had ended slavery. Therefore it would be incorrect to ignore that Africans in the United States could be free prior to then. For example, in New York where I live, the legal end to slavery was 1827. I have a copy of the manumission lists culled from the Town of Rye records where I live showing freed people from the 1790s to 1820s. Presumably, these actions were partially a result of the American Revolution. There also was a Negro Point in the 1800s. I do not know the basis of the name. I know approximate area along the Byram River separating New York and Connecticut where it was located. It is not great agricultural land. I wonder if the freed people lived near the docks where they worked. In 1868, the Village of Port Chester would be created within the Town of Rye. But the area had served as a port of Westchester before then. I mention all this to show there is fragmented information available in this one town and village but it is hard to know for sure what the history is. I suspect many other communities have a similar experience.

Several questions come to mind about this period of freed Africans.

Where did they live?
Where did they pray?
What did they do?
Where were they buried?
What if any was their connection to the Underground Railroad?
What if any was their involvement with the Civil War?

To determine if this information is extinct or not, one may also ask:

What history signs are there to mark these sites, people, and actions in American history?

What information is there in the municipal history organizations/libraries to document this pre-1865 freed African experience?

Recently, I have come across of three examples of historical research into the Negro Century. These examples are from email lists I belong to and did not require research on my part. They show that interest in this time period still exists.

1. Candacy Taylor, author of Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America

I saw her speak at the Schomburg Center in January for the book launch and then online through a program arranged on July 21, by the National Council of History Education (NCHE). The Green Book was more than an AAA guide. It listed many non-tourist business as well. Taylor travelled the country looking for these sites.

What history signs are there to mark these sites in American history?

What information is there in the municipal history organizations/libraries about the Green Book sites in their own communities?

2. Sarah Elizabeth Ray: The Rosa Parks of SS Columbia

The SS Columbia is a steamship being restored in Buffalo, NY. Before that it had operated in Detroit as part of the Boblo Excursion Company which ran an amusement park. People boarded the company’s boats in Detroit to travel on to the park. Sara Elizabeth Ray joined her white classmates for this graduation excursion in June 1945. She was denied passage ten years before the more famous Rosa Parks event. It became a successful lawsuit involving Thurgood Marshall. The people restoring the SS Columbia discovered this unexpected piece of history during their investigation into the history of the ship. They now have a story to tell and are working on how to do so. The video I just saw about her also shown July 21 is not yet ready for public showing.

3. Why Isn’t John Donaldson in the Hall of Fame? (NYT 8/1/20, print)

This op-ed piece describes the efforts to have this pitcher in the Negro Leagues be recognized for his achievements. If successful, Donaldson would join 35 other Negro League players in Cooperstown.

These examples to remember people, places, and events from the Negro Century illustrate efforts to resist the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro in American history and culture.

THE NEGRO DREAM

As to the values of the American Negro, consider this declaration:

We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at Ebenezer Baptist Chapel, Atlanta, Georgia, 4 July 1965

Critical to fulfilling that dream is the vote. John Lewis and voting will forever be paired together. His success in the 1960s contributed to the demise of the Green Book. The Negro Leagues already had ceased operations post Jackie Robinson. Lewis’s success also led to the Southern Strategy and voter suppression. The upcoming election may signal the death of those two actions as no longer being politically viable.

I conclude with two examples representing the efforts to recognize the Negro Century in the American experience and the challenge in preventing its sad demise and eventual extinction.

On a positive note there is the movie Hidden Figures (2016) which has been the subject of previous blogs (Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams, March 11, 2018). It represents a fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream noted above. It is a story of family, education, church, and service in helping Americans land on the moon.

On a negative note there is an incident at Columbia University also the subject of a previous blog (History at Columbia University: Report from a Battle Front in the Culture Wars, April 10, 2018). An article in the Columbia Daily Spectator recounted a student taking exception to a professor using the word “Negro” in a class about the 1960s. The professor responded:

It is in fact true, as a matter of historical record, that African Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s wanted to be called ‘Negroes.’ Denying that practice would be a falsification of history.

Contrary to the play, the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro in American history and culture won’t be due to white people.

The last words go John Lewis.

Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it. (Final words of John Lewis published posthumously July 30, 2020)

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