Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction/mothering the Race: Women's Narratives of Reproduction, 1890-1930

By Ferron, Deidre | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction/mothering the Race: Women's Narratives of Reproduction, 1890-1930


Ferron, Deidre, Women's Studies Quarterly


MICHELE MITCHELL'S RIGHTEOUS PROPAGATION: AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE POLITICS OF RACIAL DESTINY AFTER RECONSTRUCTION, CHAPEL HILL: UNIVERSITY OE NORTH CAROLINA PRESS, 2004

ALLISON BERG'S MOTHERING THE RACE: WOMEN'S NARRATIVES OF REPRODUCTION, 1890-1930. URBANA: UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS, 2002

Just as sociologists, geographers, and other scholars who study spatial processes warn against attaching substantive significance to somewhat arbitrary administrative boundaries, many historians proffer the same advice about standardized chronological ones-in other words, sometimes January 1 is just another day. Yet it can be difficult to resist the urge to take stock of accomplishments, failures, unexpected events, and so on as the end of an era approaches and its successor looms. Both Michèle Mitchell and Allison Berg identify the marking of a new millennium as a key factor in motivating their examinations of Progressive Era public discourse. Using different lenses and perspectives, both authors posed a version of the same question: what can Progressive Era political discourse reveal about intersections of race, class and gender at the beginning of this millennium?

For blacks, the Progressive Era was marked by anxiety and intense pressure to uplift the race and then move forward, shedding vestiges of bondage. As national debates pertaining to suffrage, imperialism, immigration, and eugenics abounded, pundits and activists in the African American community advanced arguments about standards of behavior, outlook, and collective action that racial progress demanded. African American writing often resonated with its audience's desire to demonstrate strides since Emancipation, concretize what was still a somewhat inchoate citizenship status, and pursue a collective racial destiny.

Regardless of the numerous claims about what was best for the destiny of the race, Mitchell argues that strategies for its achievement focused on intraracial reform by the early twentieth century (9). In what Mitchell characterizes as a "social history of thought," she uses diverse primary sources to underscore three main points: concepts of racial destiny shifted over time; despite this, attendant uses of gender and sexuality remained constant; and implications were ultimately different for women and for men (13). Mitchell proceeds to explore several social arenas in which public and quasi-public discourse aimed to focus energy on uplifting the race. Using emigration, imperialism, reproductive health, housing conditions, material culture, miscegenation, and Black Nationalism as debated-realm cases, the author assesses the demographics of audiences, writers, supporters, and detractors to present her evidence.

Her exploration of uplift discourse begins with the contemplation of emigration as a means of allowing the race to progress, free of obstacles such as discriminatory laws, lynching, and other forms of social and physical violence. In this arena, men and women from various family backgrounds were likely to seek passage, organize fund-raising efforts, and disseminate information about the experience of successful emigrants. Yet as trips were organized, single women were often denied passage in favor of families and single men, and freed persons who had made major strides and attained relative success since Emancipation were much less likely to pursue emigration as a viable means of mobility.

In another instance, Mitchell notes that after Reconstruction blacks often associated freedom with territory, but to a greater extent than in emigration debates, racial activists associated virility and manhood with territories that served as military arenas and locations of imperialist projects. In addition to highlighting gendered language in these debates, Mitchell points out that most commentators on the subjects of war heroism and imperial expansion were male, which differed from other contested realms of racial progress. …

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