This piece inaugurates what we hope will become a recurring feature in the JSR. Contributors are cajoled (or in turn hector us to allow them) to respond to very recent books or articles that have caught their attention. The intent is not so much a formal review as an intellectual engagement and, we hope, an invitation for further discussion. As for the latter goal, we will be directing any interested commentators to our listserve sponsor, H-Southern-Religion. We do not have any particular length, style, or subject matter (other than, of course, religion in the South) in mind for this feature. We merely aim to take advantage of the online format and its immediacy to foster dialogue about recent works.
Our first participant is Curtis J. Evans of the University of Chicago Divinity School, whose forthcoming
The Burden of Black Religion: Representing, Vindicating, and Uplifting the Race (Oxford, 2008)
examines interpretations and cultural images of African American religion. He will be commenting on a recent article by David Sehat, "The Civilizing Mission of Booker T. Washington," Journal of Southern History 73 (May 2007), 323-62. In alerting readers to Sehat's article and engaging with its arguments, Evans brings to bear his command over many of the same primary sources cited by Sehat, as well as his own ideas on Washington's critique of black religion.
Once again, this is as much as anything an invitation for further discussion. We welcome any suggestions for recent works that might encourage similar pieces, and of course volunteers to write them. -The Editors
"Booker T. Washington and the Quest for an Industrialized and Civilized Religion for Black Southerners"
Curtis J. Evans
|University of Chicago Divinity School
In a letter dated June 6, 1913, Booker T. Washington wrote to Bruce Kinney, southwest district superintendent of the American (northern) Baptist Home Mission Society, the following words concerning Mormonism: "My own race has suffered so much through misrepresentation, that I naturally have a kind of fellow feeling for any group of people that is likely to be misrepresented." In the deferential style he typically used when writing whites, Washington assured Kinney that he did not know the "whole truth" about the group in question. He had reason to assure Kinney that his positive remark about Mormons was not quite an endorsement of the group's theology. Kinney and other northern Protestants regarded the Church of Latter Day Saints as heretical and a threat to a Christian America, Kinney having just written a book with the self-explanatory title, Mormonism—The Islam of America (1912). Kinney had good reasons to question the truthfulness of Washington's apparent "defense" of Mormons because Washington had written for the prominent black newsweekly, the New York Age, a glowing report on the Mormons after having spent two days in Salt Lake City, Utah, studying them and talking with their leaders. Crucially, Washington avoided a discussion of their theology, pleading that he was not a theologian. Rather, he was interested in information that "ought to prove of value to our race."
In the Age piece, Washington commended the Mormons as an "intelligent, healthy, clean, progressive, [and] moral set of people." He found ample evidence of hard work and wealth among adherents. Washington was impressed with their "strong, fine bodies" and "vigorous and alert minds" and marveled at their deep connection to the land. All that he saw lacking in blacks he found in plentiful supply among the Mormons. Even so, Washington felt that because Mormons had been persecuted and misrepresented, there were parallels between them and African Americans and that blacks had a lot to learn from a despised sect that had advertised its message to the world through its sufferings.
What made Washington so eager to hold up Mormons as a success story to blacks? Why this identification with a religious group that was despised by most northern Protestants with whom Washington had worked over the years (especially through the American Missionary Association) in his program of racial uplift in the South? In letters that defended Mormons against the criticisms of northern whites, there is evidence that Washington had become disillusioned or perhaps even felt betrayed by northern white Protestants. He tried to come to terms with the developing northern or liberal Protestant critique of black Christianity and the increasing propagation throughout the nation of hardcore southern racist views of blacks as inherently criminal and morally depraved.
Mormons were outsiders to this developing American nationalism that was deeply rooted in a white Protestant conception of nationhood. In his attempt to link Mormons with the special problems that blacks faced, Washington wrote: "no person outside a race or outside a group of people can ever really know that race or that group until he gets into their homes." He went on to note that one had to get into the "inner life" of a people before one could pronounce judgments upon them. Washington criticized those "many people to-day who consider themselves wise on the condition of the Negro, [but] who are really afraid to go into a Negro home, who never go into a Negro church or Sunday school" and yet who profess to really know what blacks are like. The language is strikingly similar to and reminiscent of the words of Washington's rival and contemporary, W. E. B. Du Bois, who chided whites for their failure to "get down here [in the South] & really study at first hand" the conditions of black life. Du Bois had reminded scholars of the need to sit in "intimate soul contact" with African Americans before writing treatises on their lifestyles. How can one explain the curious convergence of Washington with Du Bois in his defense of blacks from the aspersions of others? Washington, after all, had never shied away from his own continuous critiques of black religion and morals, particularly those of black ministers.
David Sehat provides the most convincing answer to this question, though in ways not quite intended. Sehat's recent essay in the Journal of Southern History posits that Washington's civilizing mission to blacks and his critique of the morals of black ministers in the South was part of a broader project advanced by benevolent organizations and church foreign mission societies in the late-nineteenth century to bring Christianity and civilization to varied "colored" and indigenous peoples around the world. Sehat lifts the treatment of Washington and southern blacks from the parochialism of a U.S.-centric focus. He regards Washington as an "indigenous collaborator" caught between his own culture and that of the dominant white class in the United States. By attending to the "structural determinants" of Washington's actions, Sehat moves us beyond a simple analysis of Washington's person in the form of his political strategies, rhetorical techniques, personal psychology, and intra-ethnic rivalries.
By focusing on Sehat's argument that Washington's continuing attachment to a civilizing mission for southern blacks precisely when the AMA had begun to lose confidence in it, we are better able to understand Washington's remarks about Mormons. Sehat contends that Washington had begun to backpedal in his criticisms of black ministers and black religion more generally once he was faced with abandonment by the AMA, criticism from other black leaders, and dour assessments of blacks' character from his own white supporters. But we must not make too much of this alleged change of heart. After all, even in Washington's 1905 article on the "Religious Life of the Negro" in the North American Review, he supported common claims that black religious life was detached from ethics or morality. Though Sehat is correct that the general tone of the essay was positive and that Washington found evidence of progress among black churches, in the end, in my view, he confirmed the widespread view that black religion was emotional, otherworldly, lacking in "steadiness and a moral significance," did not promote industry and hard work, and all too often supported "immoral ministers." Similarly, even in his essay comparing Mormons with blacks, Washington found weaknesses and moral failings among blacks and hoped that they would learn from Mormons. Instead of having a commercial organization to promote business and the industrial interests of their people, Washington charged blacks in Salt Lake City and in the South with supporting club houses that encouraged men to drink and gamble. Here again, Washington returned to persistent themes. He believed that black people were wasteful, that their religion had little connection with their social life and moral development, and that they lacked (in general) the necessary foundations to succeed in business and commercial interests (primarily by blaming these on moral defects traceable to slavery and contemporary living habits).
Impressed with the Mormons' integration of social and moral life and struck by their dedication to gymnastics, Washington recommended that blacks devote attention to the same in order to have fit bodies. He also defended Latter Day Saints against claims of immorality while studiously avoiding a discussion of plural marriage. I raise this latter point only because Washington felt it necessary to indicate that he wanted to avoid it and stick to his analysis of the fitness of Mormons' bodies and minds. Yet, this avoidance contradicted Washington's Victorian mores. He constantly criticized black ministers as sexually immoral but remained mute about plural marriages among Mormons, a practice that evoked deep fears and anxieties among his Victorian contemporaries, especially liberal Protestants. (In another article, he indicated that he found no evidence of plural marriage among Mormons, but found much to admire in their religious creed. Perhaps here again is evidence of Washington's growing disillusionment with the social and moral worldview of his northern white compatriots, though he steadfastly maintained their ethical critique of the morals of black southerners.
Sehat urges scholars not to condemn Washington for his faith in the civilizing mission, his parody of southern black religious practices, and his more general collaboration with AMA and other agents in their dismal assessments and predictions about blacks' moral life. He argues that Washington's failure to bring about blacks' acceptance of white, Christian, bourgeois values in order to compel southern and northern whites to accept their claims for full citizenship "says more about his place in the system of domination of the post-Civil War South than it does about the limitations of his leadership."
I find compelling Sehat's emphasis on the "structural determinants" and the "dense system of oppression" under which Washington and other black leaders had to operate. When I began over three years ago a systematic study of all of Washington's writings and speeches on black religion, I came to his work after I had already read extensively the writings of black and white (mostly northern) missionaries and educators working among blacks in the South. I had also read a considerable amount of material on the critique of the African-American ministry by black leaders and ministers in the 1880s and 1890s, particularly in the pages of the African Methodist Church Review, which was founded in 1884 and became the leading scholarly journal of the AME denomination, though its articles were not limited to members of this denomination. What I found in this journal and in other writings of black leaders was a continuing criticism of southern black ministers, dating back at least to 1884: their grammar, their moral fitness for ministry, their emotional sermons, and their lack of education and formal training.
So Washington entered the fray with his 1890 critique of black ministers. He joined a conversation that was already being held. Furthermore, he mirrored many of the criticisms of black religion that were rather common from the moment that the AMA and other white Protestant organizations and individuals came to the South after the Civil War to work among black southerners. In light of these internal debates raging among black leaders and the dominant discourse of black degradation by white northerners and southerners, Sehat is right to emphasize the political and social constraints under which Washington navigated. Sehat's attention to the oppressive and brutal nature of the Jim Crow system in which Washington propounded his ideas of black culture and his counsel to avoid a narrow focus on Washington's person reminds me of Robert Orsi's exhortation to scholars to adopt a "more chastened view of culture generally and of religion in particular, one that steers clear of words like empowerment [and] agency (simply)" and to move instead in the register of the tragic, limited, and constrained. Although Orsi was particularly concerned about scholars' sometimes glib either/or condemnation or praise of "popular religion" as complicit in a system of oppression or as empowering and liberating, it seems to me that his advice is relevant to Sehat's portrayal of Washington as a tragic and constrained individual caught up in an ensnaring discourse of racial advance and civilization that promised progress even as it explicitly and implicitly regarded blacks as inferior, morally defective and in need of uplift and "civilized behavior." Moral fitness and bourgeois behavior were set as a precondition for citizenship even as the system assumed and enforced the "immorality" and "inhumanity" of its victims. Washington's espousal of a civilizing mission must therefore be understood in this complex historical and social context.
It seems to me, however, that Sehat's work is not so much a break from past interpretations, but adds another dimension in his emphasis on Washington's critique of black churches, a central aspect of black culture in the late nineteenth-century South. For all his criticisms of scholars for their alleged "narrow focus" on the person of Washington, Sehat does precisely that, even if he is more explicit about the broader social and political forces that constrained his leadership. Sehat discusses Washington's views on black religion and his conflicts with other black leaders and white northerners. Is that not an examination of Washington's personal psychology, rhetorical techniques, and intra-ethnic rivalries? Although Washington joined a conversation that was already being held, his important role as a channel of philanthropic largesse, his nearly ubiquitous presence before northern audiences, praise from leading white southerners, and his unique role as a leader and spokesperson for the "Negro race" from 1895 to his death surely indicate that Washington's person is worth exploration, even if we are to heed Sehat's counsel about the structural determinants of his thought and action. In fact, I would argue, as Sehat's work implies, that Washington's important role as a spokesman before northern white religious audiences legitimated the discourse of "emotionalism" that we find in many of the writings of liberal Protestants at this time. His darky stories about black ministers, his assertion that ethics were separate from religion in black culture, and his argument that black religion was otherworldly reinforced and perhaps encouraged white northern Protestants and social scientists in their confident and bleak assertions that black men were morally depraved and raping white women in astonishing numbers. Black religion was regarded as morally defective and a contributing factor to sexual licentiousness. Whites did not need Washington's assistance to denigrate African-American culture in the South, but his public, negative, and parodic descriptions of black religion before white liberal Protestants lent support to their ideas. Whites often had a tendency at the time to note self-servingly that "even one of their own Negro leaders" asserted some damning fact about black life.
Sehat makes the important observation that in "liberal Congregational belief" religion and morality were "intimately connected." In fact, for liberal Protestantism in general, ethics and religion were inextricably linked. But we must interrogate what "ethics" or "morality" meant for these liberal Protestants, particularly as it related to criticisms of southern black religion. For Protestant groups working among blacks at the time, the term morality generally was the equivalent of a strict adherence to the Ten Commandments. White educators excoriated blacks for lying, stealing, committing adultery, and violating the Sabbath. Yet, the list continued to expand: blacks' religion failed to inculcate discipline and a work ethic, was too physical and emotional, and produced excessive spiritual confidence and assurance. Eventually, morality was equated with the local practice of religion as it was understood by most white New England Protestants. One is reminded of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Miss Ophelia from Vermont who comes to live on the southern plantation owned by her cousin Augustine St. Clare. In somewhat stereotypical fashion, Stowe portrays Miss Ophelia as a "living impersonation of order, method, and exactness." "Sin" for Miss Ophelia was shiftlessness, lack of punctuality, and anything that deviated from her notion of rectitude. Stowe writes that "she held in most decided contempt and abomination anything of a contrary character." In similar fashion, through several decades of work among blacks in the South, white Protestants viewed black religion through the lens of this particular notion of morality. As cultural historian Lawrence Levine writes, these missionaries and educators "rarely wavered in their conviction that their pupils had to be reconstructed in almost every particular from the rudiments of learning to their style of worship, from their habits of cleanliness to the structure of their families, from their moral fiber to their manner of speaking and pronunciation." Morality then was a specific set of cultural values that white Protestants assumed should be universalized.
At the turn of the century the more sinister meaning behind the view that black religion and ethics were separate was the justification or apology for lynching. If, as some argued, black churches were growing and they did nothing to foster moral life, then they functioned as mechanisms to exonerate blacks from criminal behavior. (This harsh claim was generally made by white southerners who justified segregation and disfranchisement.) Furthermore, black religion was defined as emotionalism, which interpreters argued psychologically predisposed them to erratic actions and, in some cases, sexual aggressiveness against white women. To say that religion and ethics were separate in black life was essentially to say that blacks lacked a religion proper (or the appropriate form of religion). In the political and cultural context of disfranchisement, legalized segregation, ghastly lynching of black males, and bestial images of blacks, assertions that their churches—the very center of blacks' lives because they owned them and they were voluntary institutions which expressed blacks' culture and aspirations—were ineffective in promoting morality was tantamount to a denial of their full humanity and their fitness for any claims to citizenship. Washington's denigration of black culture before northern audiences must surely be laid at his feet, whatever we may say about the social and political constraints of his time. I am more than willing to blame this partly on his leadership style and his active role as a moral agent who spoke as an interpreter of southern black culture.
I am happy to see Sehat's careful attention to Washington's critique of black religion because it adds a richer texture to our mostly secular political, economic, and social studies of this period. In full disclosure, I find his analysis of Washington's thought to be remarkably similar to my own conclusions (in my forthcoming book), though with more sophistication and a deeper grounding in theoretical concerns than I offered in my analysis. This is a very important essay that deserves wide reading. It is a complex and nuanced interpretation of Washington's conflicted attempts to bring civilization and uplift to black Americans. It unveils another layer of the difficulties that African Americans faced in the Jim Crow South, even at the hands of those who ostensibly sought to help them. I shall leave it to other scholars to weigh in on Sehat's claim that blacks shared a common dilemma faced by "all subjugated peoples around the world." His attention to literature on the colonial context and the African diaspora is welcome, but my focus on the American cultural and political context reflects a deep conviction that I have about the importance of the local and the particular rather than simply a parochial concern with the United States or the South (as Sehat intimates of previous works). I am wary of grand and sweeping assertions about the similarities of oppressed peoples everywhere, though I find Sehat's attempt to fit Washington into a category of "indigenous collaborators" to be a stimulating and illuminating one. It is rare that I find an essay or work in which I agree with so many of its assertions and conclusions. I hope this is not an indication of my being too close to this material and looking for examples of writings that confirm my own views. I had rather think that it is simply a case of my appropriate reaction to Sehat's excellent scholarship and my proper commendation of him for such a well-written and lucid essay.