Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

"And the Truth Shall Make You Free": Richard Robert Wright, Sr., Black Intellectual and Iconoclast, 1877-1897

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

"And the Truth Shall Make You Free": Richard Robert Wright, Sr., Black Intellectual and Iconoclast, 1877-1897

Article excerpt

The last quarter of the nineteenth century following the end of Reconstruction, which historian Rayford W. Logan termed "The Nadir," black southerners witnessed a steady deterioration in their status that culminated with farm tenancy, sharecropping, convict lease systems resembling peonage, disfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and escalating lynching in the early 1900s.(1) The belief in the innate inferiority of people of African descent and a renewed commitment to white supremacy were fundamental assumptions almost universally accepted by white southerners by 1876. However, between 1877 and the early twentieth century there was an ongoing debate among whites leaders and intellectuals over whether or not the presumed inferiority of blacks was permanent, and the best means for assuring white domination in the "redeemed South." The ideological debate over what was referred to as "the Negro question," gave rise to a body of literature which W.E.B. Du Bois defined as, "one of the most stupendous [propaganda] efforts the world ever saw to discredit human beings, an effort involving universities, history, science, social life, and religion."(2)

Fortunately, this outpouring of anti-black speeches and writings, as well as the stereotypes, facile generalizations, and pseudoscientific theories upon which they were based, did not go unchallenged. From the arrival of Africans in the New World, black leaders and intellectuals undertook the task of not only developing strategies and programs assuring the physical survival and progress of their race, but also protecting and defending the integrity of their people against racist attacks and propaganda. With regard to the latter responsibility, no group received a more urgent charge to "race vindication" than the last generation born in slavery, which received its education during Reconstruction, entered adulthood during the so-called Southern Redemption, and assumed positions of leadership in the 1870s and 1880s. In addition to the sheer volume and wide variety of the anti-black pronouncements during this period, the task of vindicating the race that befell this generation was complicated by the extremely volatile nature of the allegations. While on the one hand, the argument was made that African-Americans were incapable of intellectual or economic advancement, and that efforts to educate them were futile; on the other hand, it was asserted that blacks were "an improving race" and their advancement was a menace to whites that should be forcibly contained and restricted.(3)

A more significant burden, given the general white commitment to "Negro subordination," was the obligation of black scholars to articulate a position which was fundamentally and diametrically opposed to the views held by most whites. Black leaders and intellectuals found themselves in a situation akin to negotiating a minefield blindfolded, but they devised ingenious strategies and tactics for expressing their views. In this climate of rampant "Negrophobia," intense white hostility toward blacks, and an increasing white propensity to resort to mob violence, it is astonishing that these men and women were as forthcoming and outspoken as they were. Their speeches and writings stand as a testament to their courage and tenacious determination to "set the record straight," and make it abundantly clear that African-Americans would chart their own destiny. However, to dismiss their articulations as simply "defensive-reactions" to intellectual and ideological white racialism is, in most instances, to take their words out of context, and to allow the obvious to obscure the unique.

In Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of the African-American Intellectual Tradition, V.P. Franklin described Ida Wells-Barnett's commitment "To Tell the Truth Freely" about the unfair and inaccurate accounts of lynchings in the South in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Whereas southern whites argued that lynch mobs were motivated by a desire to punish black men for the rape of white women, Ida Wells-Barnett investigated these heinous incidents and published her findings at great personal risk. …

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