Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century

Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century

Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century

Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century


Amidst the violent racism prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century, African American cultural elites, struggling to articulate a positive black identity, developed a middle-class ideology of racial uplift. Insisting that they were truly representative of the race's potential, black elites espoused an ethos of self-help and service to the black masses and distinguished themselves from the black majority as agents of civilization; hence the phrase 'uplifting the race.'

A central assumption of racial uplift ideology was that African Americans' material and moral progress would diminish white racism. But Kevin Gaines argues that, in its emphasis on class distinctions and patriarchal authority, racial uplift ideology was tied to pejorative notions of racial pathology and thus was limited as a force against white prejudice.

Drawing on the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Hubert H. Harrison, and others, Gaines focuses on the intersections between race and gender in both racial uplift ideology and black nationalist thought, showing that the meaning of uplift was intensely contested even among those who shared its aims. Ultimately, elite conceptions of the ideology retreated from more democratic visions of uplift as social advancement, leaving a legacy that narrows our conceptions of rights, citizenship, and social justice.


In the period between his departure from the Nation of Islam in March of 1964 and his assassination on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X broadened the terms of identity and the tactics of struggle for African Americans. "We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level--to the level of human rights," he argued. Malcolm declared that African Americans should circumvent a federal government reluctant to protect black lives and political rights in the South and bring their grievances to the United Nations as a human rights issue: "Civil rights means your asking Uncle Sam to treat you right. Human rights are something you were born with. Human rights are your God-given rights. . . . And anytime anyone violates your human rights, you can take them to the world court."

Malcolm voiced the growing disenchantment within the black freedom movement with federal reluctance to protect black and white demonstrators against segregationists' state-sanctioned terror. Civil rights legislation did not protect African Americans in the South from such abuses. Nor did these reforms address the poverty and discrimination suffered by blacks in urban ghettoes. Central to Malcolm's critique of civil rights was a changing black consciousness and politics joining struggles for racial and social justice. Malcolm questioned the Cold War liberalism that held sway over the civil rights consensus, with its injunctions that black leadership attend solely to formal equality before the law and remain silent on economic issues and U.S. foreign policy. Refraining black Americans' struggles within the international context of African liberation movements, Malcolm asserted the citizenship and humanity of African Americans as unassailable first principles.

Malcolm's critique is a sobering reminder that the civil rights movement fell short of its promise of racial justice in the courts and might have gone on to address disparities in the distribution of wealth and power. Through the post-civil rights, neoliberal ideology of color blindness, race continues to . . .

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