Cosmopolitanism in Georgia Douglas Johnson's Anti-Lynching Literature

By O'Brien, C. C. | African American Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Cosmopolitanism in Georgia Douglas Johnson's Anti-Lynching Literature


O'Brien, C. C., African American Review


In December 1874, the African Methodist Episcopal Church changed the design on the front page of its major publication, the Christian Recorder. The new banner featured an image of the continent of Africa, apparently emphasizing the American church members' sense of connection to Africa. While the caption "Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Out Her Hands to God" (1) possibly reflected the church's missionary ideals rather than a sense of Pan-African identity, it initiates a series of literary and journalistic moves that ushered the continent of Africa into the national imagination without invoking its status as "dark continent." (2) In an era when dominant cultural references to Africa would ingrain (in the minds of white Americans), fixed notions of savagery, heathens, and evil, several African American writers sought to disrupt the discourse of primitivism, civilization, and racial supremacy by embracing an imagined African past in various ways. (3)

The significance of the symbol at the center of the Christian Recorder banner more reflects black Americans' status as participants in the building of a modern republic than their accurate ideas about the geographical space that was Africa itself. In a letter to the Recorder's editor dated March 22, 1877, B. A. Imes argued that "the notion that a people just out of bondage, with all the results of its degradation clinging to them, should better their condition by migrating to its shore is preposterous." Like most middle-class African Americans, Imes demanded that America be transformed to accommodate blacks: "The genius of its own institutions our birthright and unrequited toil, entitle us to a home."

Nineteenth-century black intellectuals argued that Africa had much to offer the US, and perhaps too much to offer its African American citizens. In the work of prolific author and activist Frances Harper, for example, references to African ancestry most frequently fall under the category of "cursed blood," a phrase that does not overtly reject discourses of African cultural inferiority. Harper, like her activist sister of the next generation Ida B. Wells, subtly clarifies and inverts the meaning of "cursed blood," to illustrate that after white Americans cursed Africans with slavery, they cursed them further with racial terrorism in the form of lynching. Pauline Hopkins, novelist and editor of The Colored American Magazine, argues for cultural syncretism and recognition of African contributions to modern culture and civilization; neither she nor Harper advocated black nationalism in its "back-to-Africa" incarnation. Their white-looking black heroines, usually octoroons with one-eighth black and seven-eighths white "blood," symbolize an African cultural presence in the American body politic.

Saidiya Hartman has observed that the development of a racist social structure in the early 1900s revolves largely around the demarcation of the black body as alien and dangerous to the patriarchal order that would govern an increasingly imperialist and masculinist United States national identity. Hartman suggests that "the placement and proximity of blacks among, amidst, and within the greater body of Americans and in the perception of a discernible 'us' encroached upon by black intruders identified the 'Negro problem' with the question of the social, thereby involving matters of intimacy, association, and need" (165). The intimacy and need implied in the interracial relationship that spawned so-called octoroon children also signified an interdependence between US and African cultures.

Practitioners of the progressive philosophy, such as Jane Addams, envisioned a cosmopolitan civilization. Eric Kaufman enumerates four goals of progressive cosmopolitanism: (1) to oppose Anglo-conformist modes of assimilation, (2) to celebrate the cultural diversity of the United States, (3) to endorse inter-ethnic contact and hybridity, and simultaneously (4) to eschew the maintenance of diverse ethnic communities (1089). …

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