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Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams

The story of middle passage blacks in New York now moves to the 20th century. So far various posts have covered

* the diminishment of the story of middle passage blacks during the two centuries time of slavery until 1827 and some of the efforts to recover and tell the story (see Forgetting July 4, 1827 and  Undoing the Whitewashing of Black History in New York)

* the time of free black history in New York after 1827 which also tends to be ignored unless it is related to the Underground Railroad (see Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?)

* the shortcomings of the efforts by New York State related to the Underground Railroad especially in contrast to the recent initiative by former Confederate States to promote civil rights sites from the 20th century (see The Underground Railroad in New York State: Black Lives Still Don’t Matter and The Confederacy Trumps New York on Civil Rights Tourism)

* the shortcomings of the efforts by New York State through its Amistad Commission intended to be about slavery in the United States (meaning the South) while ignoring or minimizing the New York State story (see The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?)

At this point there are many people, often volunteer researchers and archaeologists, laboring to recover and tell this history.

In the 20th century, the situation changes drastically due to the Great Migration. With this movement of people from the South to various northern states including New York, the local middle passage blacks were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of new arrivals involved. Instead of the small-scale Seneca Village, there was Harlem. Instead of Weeksville there was Bed-Stuy. Instead of the Hills in Harrison, there was Mount Vernon. While the newcomers may have had ancestors dating back to colonial times, they were newcomers in New York, they had no roots to the centuries of middle passage black history in the state prior to the Harlem Renaissance.

These people from the South weren’t the only newcomers in large numbers to New York, especially New York City. Roughly at the same time, newcomers not just to New York but to the United States were arriving via Ellis Island. These Italians, Jews, and ethnics from eastern and southern Europe first saw the United States through the Statue of Liberty and a poem about the tired and the poor. They were here to live the American Dream. So were the people of the Great Migration who now had their first real opportunity to live that dream outside the agricultural southern economy .

These worlds operated somewhat separated and somewhat together. At this time, middle passage blacks were called Negroes. The word was simply the name of one demographic group with no value associated with it. It was a word everyone used including the Negroes themselves (see The Negro Name Game: My First Step Trying to Make Sense and Have Hope in a Racially Tumultuous Country).  When I was growing up in New Rochelle, the four leading demographic groups were the Jews, Irish, Italians, and Negroes. Intermarriage was between Irish and Italian (Cuomo-Kennedy). The first three of those groups are still called by those names.

With Negroes, a change would occur, the subject of a future post. For the moment, consider this recent announcement about an upcoming lecture:

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many whites believed that African Americans were inherently ill and doomed to extinction. To challenge this stereotype and demonstrate the race’s health, Booker T. Washington launched a public health campaign in 1915: National Negro Health Week. This talk examines the changes in, and challenges to, medical authority and public health in African American communities that the Week caused. The goal is to show how African American definitions of health differed from those of the medical establishment and the implications such differences created for the social control over, and empowerment of, African Americans.

Or this description of Negro published by the Encyclopedia of African-American Education:

The Journal of Negro Education (JNE), a scholarly refereed journal, was founded at Howard University in 1932. It is one of the oldest continuously published periodicals by and about Black people. At the time of its inception, however, there was no publication that systematically or comprehensively addressed the enormous problems that characterized the education of Blacks in the United States and elsewhere. The mainstream educational journals only occasionally published articles or studies pertaining to Black education, but no publication focused specifically on this area.

These name combinations anticipate the change which would occur in the Negro quest to live the American Dream when they stopped calling themselves Negroes.

In many ways, Negroes created an alternate reality from the dominant white world but one still imbued with traditional American values. In 1931, The Star-Spangled Banner became the official anthem of the United States. In an editorial (11/21/17, NYT) about “Colin Kaepernick and the Legacy of the Negro National Anthem,” Brent Staples wrote:

Well before then, however, black communities across the Jim Crow South were instead embracing the soaring, aspirational lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — otherwise known as the Negro National Anthem — which was sung in churches, at civic events and even in schools, where substituting the song for “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a quiet act of rebellion against the racist status quo….

James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900 to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at a time when the government seemed to have abandoned altogether the promise of Reconstruction. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, had validated the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

So while white America took a song that had been around since the War of 1812, black America created a song to celebrate Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. How many monuments to America’s greatest president do you think there are in the former Confederacy today?

During this time, Negroes began to tell there own story. In 1934, journalist and historian Joel Augustus Rogers’ columns were consolidated into the book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof: A Short Cut to The World History of The Negro. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. produced his own version under the same title in 2017. The exhibition, The Negro Artist Comes of Age was shown in 1945 at the Albany Institute of History & Art. Just this month, a lecture was presented at the same institution on the exhibit. When the exhibition first opened it was reviewed in The Journal of Negro History but the comments aren’t what you might expect:

The aim is to lift the Negro artist from the patronizing sphere of a group set off by itself and regarded as Negro artists rather than as artists who happened to be Negroes. The very exhibit itself left upon one of the artists invited to participate this very undesirable impression and for that reason he refused to exhibit.

One observes here in the post-WWII era, a desire not to separated but to be included – why should there be separate art exhibits based on race?

Yet separation was the way of the world. In 1936, the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book appeared. Annual editions would be printed until 1967. It drew on the Jewish experience of the need to identify where it was safe to be what you as you traveled throughout the United States.

So during these decades, Negroes had their own history, art, and hotels. If they had their own anthem, they also had their own sports events as well. These decades were the highpoint of the Negro Baseball League. All these differences came to a point in Brooklyn with Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers. The Dodgers already were the most integrated team in baseball. Part of their mystique in Brooklyn was that they were everywhere. They were in every school, neighborhood, and ethnicity in the borough of immigrants. In some way adding Negroes to the mix was a logical next step given all the other ethnicities on the team and in the stands. It brought to the forefront the issues of the national anthem, travel, and separate but equal. In some ways, the Dodgers signified that yes, Negroes could live the American Dream and play in America’s pastime with everyone else.

In a previous post (Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?), I wrote about the movie Brooklyn. It tells the story of an individual Irish immigrant to Brooklyn in the 1950s during the glory era of the Dodgers. Through education, marriage to an Italian, and the promise of a home in the new Long Island suburbs, she came to live the American Dream. My question in that post was where is the movie about the Negro who lives the American Dream…not a movie about slavery and the white savior or the Underground Railroad, but a movie about individual blacks who live the American Dream just as so many other people did.

Then I saw Hidden Figures with Kevin Costner of Field of Dreams and Whitney Houston fame. He appeared in a movie where he was not the star but delivered one of the most memorable lines of the movie: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” It reminded me of the line in To Sir with Love when Sidney Poitier is cut and bleeding red blood. One of his English students says “Did you expect him to bleed ink?” (or words to that effect, it’s been a while). The bathroom scenes in Hidden Figures really do a superb job of illustrating class, race, and sex divides without being heavy-handed about them.

The movie is set in Virginia in the early 1960s when the space race heats up. The time and location are about the same as the movie Loving about an interracial marriage and just before the 1971 integration of a Virginia high school and football team in 1971 depicted in Remember the Titans. Hidden Figures itself is about three colored (not people of color) women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, NASA scientists, and how they live the American Dream. Like the movie Brooklyn and the traditional stories of white Americans living the American Dream, it is a story of family, home, church, education, service to country, and hard work where black and white together shared the fears and pride in the American quest to go to the moon.

The movie seems to herald a better day for Negroes. The proclamation “I have a dream” meant that the arc of history was bending towards a time when blacks and whites both would be able to live the American Dream together. That didn’t happen. Fifty Years an African-American will be the subject of the next post on what happened instead.

The Brooklyn State of History

What is the Brooklyn story and if there is one, is it being told?  In December, I wrote a post here about the Dutch heritage. That led to two responses from people who can claim a direct connection to that heritage in Brooklyn.

“My mother’s family ‘way back’ (1638) was Dutch, and helped found what is now Brooklyn. As I understand, they owned part of what is now Prospect Park. (I shocked a very family-proud great-aunt by saying ‘They should have held on to it; it would be worth a lot of money today!’ I was probably about 10 years old at the time and not impressed by family background!” – Celin Schoen Continue reading “The Brooklyn State of History”