There are those who think that I am naive about racism or that I downplay it. The kinds of people who think so are often themselves accused, from other quarters, of being "stuck in the past," unable to admit that things truly change. Interestingly, I often feel that it's actually I who am stuck in the past.
I mean that I cannot help, at all times, comparing now with what it was like on a daily basis for those who came before us. Take this week, when we are marking the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. Many remind us that we have come only so far. I, on the other hand, think just as much — and probably more — of the fact that we really have come so very far.
Let's go back a hundred years from this exact month. What was it like to be black in April 1911? The handiest way to find out is with the issue of the NAACP's magazine the Crisis (pdf). And it leaves me thinking that if it makes me naive to feel much, much better about things than those people did, then naive I most definitely will stay.
The Crisis of April 1911 had assorted reports of people catching hell for having a drop of "Negro blood" in them and daring to conduct themselves as white. When a woman killed by a streetcar in New Orleans turned out not to be as completely white as she had claimed, her sister was immediately divorced by her husband, and her brother was forced to transfer to an all-black school.
That's the kind of thing that leaves me disappointed at black people today who are angry when a less-than-lily-Caucasian person refrains from "identifying" as black. "Know your history," indeed, such as in the same year, when a Columbia University professor created a news scandal, followed by an injunction from his landlord, because he had hosted a meeting that black people attended. The fact that the black people had drunk from his teacups was considered especially frightful. I drank from some cups at a white Columbia professor's house last week, and nobody cared. It matters.
Then, over the past couple of weeks, we have heard some grim takes on the fact that so many black people have moved back to the South over the past 10 years. Walter Russell Mead blogs that the North was unable to provide us a haven, while the University of Pennsylvania's Thomas Sugrue is unhappy that blacks leaving Detroit are moving to the less tony inner-ring suburbs rather than the opulent ones.
To me, what's significant is that black people can move, period. The Crisis of April 1911, at a time when blacks were starting to be penned into what would later be called inner cities and shot at when they tried to live anywhere else, casually notes that black ghettos are being officially instituted in St. Louis, Mo., and Birmingham, Ala. NAACP co-founder Oswald Villard had tart words for the chin-up message of Booker T. Washington:
"Mr. Washington has gone up and down the country with the approval of white men of all sections, urging the Negro to buy farms and houses. But," Villard continued, "if he buys a fine house on a good street, in Baltimore, the law is hard on his heels." As a matter of fact, it was tomorrow a hundred years ago that Baltimore's mayor signed an ordinance making it illegal for blacks to live in or own businesses in white neighborhoods.
As it happened, it was a hundred years ago yesterday that Washington dismissed W.E.B. Du Bois and the Crisis as "that little gang of crotcheteers on Vesey Street." However, he hadn't had a very good March, and it was because of racist attitudes — and of a kind that folks hardly needed psychological tests to identify. Our issue of the Crisis tartly noted, "Mr. Booker T. Washington, principal of Tuskegee Institute, while calling at an apartment house in West 63rd Street, New York, was set upon by one of the tenants and several bystanders. Mr. Washington ran, but was severely beaten before the police interfered."
Actually, just one person beat Washington, but badly, with a cane — and it was a white man, one Charles Ulrich, who was released unpunished because Washington had supposedly said, "Hello, sweetheart" to his wife.
Now, Washington was almost certainly visiting the house on some kind of assignation. The location, now a tony Central Park West corner, was then a seedy district frequented by men in search of a "good time." However, the beating was clearly beyond any conception of civility, especially since testimony showed that the "sweetheart" account was almost certainly a lie (and the assailant turned out to have deserted his actual wife and child). Crucially, the Crisis issue describes an America in which Ulriches were not just occasional troglodytes but were everywhere and ran the show.
Charles Russell, another NAACP co-founder, describes listening to white men on a train talking about how so many black men were shot in the wake of the Galveston, Texas, flood for no particular reason, with one saying, "It was too good a chance to kill niggers, and the boys couldn't let it go by" — upon which the other men simply nodded, as if the man had said something about it being a pleasant day.
Russell allows that there are plenty of Southerners who don't feel this way, but that still, "it is certainly the feeling of those that make the laws and direct the government." So — in April 1911, being black didn't mean how whites quietly felt "out there." It was right there, in your face, and coming even from the Oval Office.
The Crisis recounts President William Howard Taft, the kindly looking fat man in photos, telling a black audience in Atlanta not to hang around in saloons "wasting time," after which Theodore Roosevelt warns them that getting "conceited" is "the very worst thing that could happen to you!"
Du Bois thunders in his editorial against blacks of the period who, so shockingly to us now, urged looking on the bright side. Despite "the rise here and there of Southern white friends of the black men, it is a dangerous falsehood to overlook the tireless and daily assaults of enemies of humanity," he wrote. I sense that today, many consider it our job to continually heed that advice.
I am naive enough to suppose that the assaults today are less than "tireless and daily," however — and I salute Du Bois and King and Ida Wells, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Bayard Rustin and so many others for making it that way. I know that racism exists, and I write about it — while always imagining how the old-timers would see it if they talked to a black person today who was grumbling that racism is still a grinding daily burden for us.
Du Bois had to tell his readers not to forget the worst. I hope we don't forget the best.
John McWhorter is a frequent contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.