The Need for New Ideas and New Aims

No JobThe Need of New Ideas and New Aims
From AFRICA AND AMERICA; Addresses and Discourses
by Alex Crummell (1940)

For there are few things which tend so much to dwarf a people as the constant dwelling upon personal sorrows and interests, whether they be real or imaginary. We have illustrations of this fact both at home and abroad. The Southern people of this nation have given as evident signs of genius and talent as the people of the North.

If we go back to Colonial times, if we revert to the early history of the nation, we see [that] for nigh three generations they gave themselves up to morbid and fanatical anxieties upon the subject of slavery. To that one single subject they gave the whole bent […] of their intellect.

So, too, the people of Ireland. For a century and more they have been indulging in the expensive luxury of sedition and revolution. As a portion of the great Celtic people of Europe, they are an historic race. […] But in Ireland, sterility has been a conspicuous feature of their intellectual life. The mind of the whole nation has been dwarfed and shriveled by morbid concentration upon an intense and frenzied sense of political wrong, and an equally intense and frenzied purpose of retaliation. And commerce, industry, and manufactures, letters and culture, have died away from them.

And while, indeed, shrieking constantly for freedom, their idea of freedom has become such an impracticable and contemptuous thing that it has challenged the sneer of the poet, who terms it “The school-boy heat, The blinti hysterics of the Celt.”

If men will put themselves in narrow and straightened grooves, if they will morbidly divorce themselves from large ideas and noble convictions, they are sure to bring distress, pettiness, and misery into their being; for the mind of man was made for things grand, exalted, and majestic.

For 200 years the misfortune of the black race has been the confinement of its mind in the pent-up prison of human bondage. The morbid, absorbing and abiding recollection of that condition – what is it but the continuance of that same condition, in memory and dark imagination? Dwell upon, reproduce, hold on to it with all its incidents, make its history the sum and acme of thought, and then, of a surety, you put up a bar to progress, and eventually produce that unique and fossilated state which is called “arrested development.”

For it is impossible for a people to progress in the conditions of civilization whose thought and interest are swallowed up in morbid memories, or narrowed to the groove of a single idea or purpose. I am asked, perchance, would you have us as a people forget that we have been an oppressed race ? I reply, that God gave us memory, and it is impossible to forget the slavery of our race. The memory of this fact may ofttimes serve as a stimulant to high endeavor. It may act, by contrast, as a suggestive of the best behests of freedom. We are forced^ not seldom, to revert to our former servile state in defence of the race, against the unreasoning traducers who, not unfrequently, impute to us a natural inferiority, which is simply the result of that former servile state.

What I would fain have you guard against is not the memory of slavery, but the constant recollection of it, as the commanding thought of a new people, who should be marching on to the broadest freedom of thought in a new and glorious present, and a still more magnificent future. You will notice here that there is a broad distinction between memory and recollection. Memory, you will observe, is a passive act of the mind. It is the necessary and unavoidable entrance, storage and recurrence of facts and ideas to the understanding and the consciousness.

Recollectiony however, is the actual seeking of the facts, is the painstaking endeavor of the mind to bring them back again to consciousness. The natural recurrence of the idea or the fact of slavery is that which cannot be faulted. What I object to is the unnecessary recollection of it. This pernicious habit I protest against as most injurious and degrading. As slavery was a degrading thing, the constant recalling of it to the mind serves, by the law of association, to degradation. Words are vital things. They are always generative of life or death. They cannot enter the soul as passive and inoperative things.

Archbishop Trench, referring to the brutal poverty of the language of the savage, says “There is nothing that so effectually tends to keep him in the depth to which he has fallen. You cannot impart to any man more than the words which he understands either now contain, or can be made, intelligibly to him, to contain. Language is as truly on one side the limit and restraint of thought, as on the other side that which feeds and unfolds it.”

My desire is that we should escape “the limit and restraint” of both the word and the thought of slavery. As a people, we have had an exodus from it. […] The thought, the routine, the usages, and calculations of that old system are dead things […]. We have new conditions of life and new relations in society. The great facts of [life] meet us at every turn; not lightly and as ephemeral things, but as permanent and abiding realities – as organic institutions, to be transmitted, in our blood to live, to the latest generations.

These changed circumstances bring to us an immense budget of new thoughts, new ideas, new projects, new purposes, new ambitions, of which our fathers never thought. We have hardly space in our brains for the old conditions of life. […] We have need, therefore, of new adjustments in life. The law of fitness comes up before us just now with tremendous power, and we are called upon, as a people, to change the currents of life, and to shift them into new and broader channels.

I have thus attempted to show the need “of new ideas, new aims and new ambitions for the new era” on which we have entered.

And now, in the second place, allow me to make the attempt to suggest some of these new ideas which I think should be entertained by us.

[It] is hardly possible to ignore one or two of the especial ambitions which now-a-days command wide attention in certain classes among us, and in which I fear we are making great mistakes. I do lament the political ambitions which seem the craze of very many young minds among us. Not, indeed, because I expect the continuance of that caste in politics, which is the extension of that social caste which is the disgrace of American society; but because I dislike always to witness a useless expenditure of forces.

For, for a long time, the political ambitions of colored men are sure to end in emptiness. And, if so, men will waste energies and powers which might be expended profitably in other directions. I expect, I desire, and when the fitting time arrives, it will be ours then to demand all the prerogatives and all the emoluments which belong to American citizenship, according to our fitness and our ability ; and without let or hindrance, because of race or former condition.

At the same time, I must remind you here that no new people leap suddenly and spontaneously into Senatorial chairs or Cabinet positions. […] The road by which a people reach grand administrative ability is a long road, now full of deep ruts, and now formidable with its steep acclivities, jagged and rugged in all its pathways, and everywhere obstructed with thorns and briers. […] And hence, you will take no offense if I venture to say that you can leave, for a little while at least, all idea of being President of the United States, or even of being sent as Minister to the Court of St. James.

Equally skeptical am I as to the manifest desire which I see in many quarters for addiction to aesthetical culture as a special vocation of the race in this country. It is an aptitude, I acknowledge, constitutional to the race, and it cannot be ignored. After two hundred years residence in the higher latitudes, we are still a tropical race ; and the warmth of the central regions constantly discovers itself in voice and love of harmonies, both those which appeal to the eye by color, and those which affect the sensibilities through the ear. Such an aboriginal quality is not to be disregarded, and I do not disregard it. All I desire to say is that there is something higher in life than inclination, however indigenous it may be. Taste and elegance, albeit natural cravings, are always secondary to the things absolute and necessary.

[…] It is not necessary that we should debase our natural qualities. But style and beauty are secondary to duty and moral responsibility. Men cannot live on flowers. Society cannot be built up upon the strength which comes from rose-water. While I have the firmest conviction that the black race in this country will, eventually, take rank among the very highest in the several spheres of art, I am equally convinced that the great demand of this day is for the homely industries among us ; that a premature addiction to it will be morally disastrous, that, as a people, we should be careful to avoid a useless expenditure of our strength and our resources.

What, then, are the special needs of this race?

We find our answer to these queries in the discovery of the deadliest breaches made in the character of our people. We all recognize the evident harm we have suffered in the times of servitude; and hence arises the duty of seeking reparation for them. But to this end we must single out the sorest calamities and the deadliest wounds these injuries have left behind.

But when I take a general survey of our race in the United States I cannot avoid the conclusion,

1st. That there are evils which lie deeper than intellectual neglect or political injury; and
2d, that to pass over the deeper maladies which destroy a man or a people, to attend to evils less virulent in their effects, shows the greatest unwisdom. “That the soul should be without knowledge is not good;” but wide attention is given to the schooling and instruction of the black population of the land ; and there need be no fear that the race can relapse into its former ignorance and benightedness. And next, with regard to political rights, ” they are grand prerogatives, and to be highly prized. But do not forget that manhood has been reached even under great civil deprivations.


I shall not pause to detail the calamities which slavery has entailed upon our race in the domain of the family. Every one knows how it has pulled down every pillar and shattered every priceless fabric. But now we have begun the life of freedom, we should attempt the repair of this, the noblest of all the structures of human life. For the basis of all human progress and of all civilization is the family. Despoil the idea of family, assail rudely its elements, its framework and its essential principles, and nothing but degeneration and barbarism can come to any people. Just here, then, we have got to begin the work of reconstruction and up-building. Nothing, next to religion, can compare with the work which is to be done in this sphere.

Placed beside this, all our political anxieties are but a triviality. For if you will think but for a moment all that is included in this word family, you will see at once that it is the root idea of all civility, of all the humanities, of all organized society. For, in this single word are included all the loves, the cares, the Sympathies, the solicitudes of parents and wives and husbands ; all the active industries, the prudent economies and the painful self-sacrifices of households; all the sweet memories, the gentle refinement, the pure speech and the godly anxieties of womanhood ; all the endurance, the courage and the hardy toil of men ; all the business capacity and the thrifty pertinacity of trades and artisanship and mechanism ; and all the moral and physical contributions of multitudinous habitations to the formation of towns and communities and cities, for the formation of states, commonwealth, churches and empires. All these have their roots in the family.

Alas ! how widely have these traits and qualities been lost to our race in this land ! How numerous are the households where they have never been known or recognized ! How deficient in manifold quarters, even now, a clear conception of the grandeur of the idea of family ! […] For the beginning of all organized society is in the family! The school, the college, the professions, suffrage, civil office, are all valuable things ; but what are they compared to the FAMILY?

Here, then, where we have suffered the greatest of our disasters, is a world-wide field for thought and interest, for intellectual anxieties and the most intelligent effort.


Turn to another and, in its material aspects, a kindred subject. I refer to the industrial conditions of the black race in this nation. No topic is exciting [or of] interest and anxiety than the labor question. Almost an angry contest is going on upon the relations of capital to labor. Into this topic all the other kindred questions of wages, hours of labor, cooperation, distribution of wealth, all are dragged in, canvassed, philosophized upon in behalf of the labor element of the country. All the activity of the keenest intellects is employed in this regard ; but all, I may say exclusively, for the white labor of this great nation.

And yet here is the fact, that this immense system of [white] labor, with all its intelligence and its safeguards, is dissatisfied, querulous and complaining; and everywhere, and especially in the great centres of industry, agonistic and belligerent, because it is fretting under a deep sense of inequality, wrong, and injustice. But, my friends, just look at the black labor of this country, and consider its sad conditions, its disorganized and rude characteristics, its almost servile status, its insecure and defenseless abjectness.

What gives labor, in any land, dignity and healthiness? It is the qualities of skill and enlightenment. It is only by these qualities men can work in the best ipanner, with the least waste, for the largest remuneraition, and with the most self-command. Where the laborer is crude, blind, uninformed and merely mechanical in his work, there he knows labor somewhat as an animal does ; and he is led almost blindly to the same dull, animal-like endurance of toil, which is the characteristic of the beast of the field. His work, moreover, is not self-directed ; for it has no inward spring.

It is not the outcome of the knowing mind and the trained and cunning hand. It is labor directed by overseeing and commanding skill and knowledge. Multitudes in every land under the sun know labor precisely in the same way domestic animals do. They know the mere physical toil. They know the severest tasks. They know the iron routine of service. They know the soulless submission of drudgery. But, alas! they have never come to know the dignity of labor; never been permitted to share its golden values and its lofty requitals.

Now, if I do not make the very greatest of mistakes, this is the marked peculiarity of the black labor of this country. I am not unmindful of the fact that the black man is a laborer. I repel the imputation that the race, as a class, is lazy and slothful. I know, too, that, to a partial extent, the black man, in the Southern States, is a craftsman, especially in the cities. I am speaking now of aggregates. I am looking at the race in the mass ; and I affirm that the sad peculiarity of our labor in this country is that our labor is rude, untutored, and debased.

[See] the scores, nay, hundreds, of these careers from which the black man is purposely and inexorably excluded ; and then you will take in the fact, that the black labor of this land is, of necessity, crude, unskilled, and disorganized labor. And remember here that I am speaking of no less than two millions of men, and women and children ; for, to a large extent, black women and children are the laborers of the South, and still work in field and factory.

Join to this the thought of its sad conditions, its servile status and its defenseless abjectness. Here is the fact that tens of thousands of men and women of our race are toiling, have been toiling for years, for men who never think of paying them the worth and value of their toil, men who systematically “keep back the hire of the laborer by fraud;” men who skillfully and ingeniously, at the close of every year, bring their ignorant laborers into debt to themselves; men who purposely close the portals of all hope, and “shut the gates of mercy” upon the victims of their fraud, and so drive hundreds and thousands of our people into theft and reckless indifference, and many thousands more into despair and premature graves!

Here, then, is a great problem which is to be settled before this race can make the advance of a single step. Without the solution of this enormous question, neither individual nor family life can secure their proper conditions in this land. Who are the men who shall undertake the settlement of this momentous question? How are they to bring about the settlement of it? I answer, first of all, that the rising intelligence of this race, the educated, thinking, scholarly men, who come out of the schools trained and equipped by reading and culture ; they are the men who are to handle this great subject. Who else can be expected to attempt it?

Do you think that men of other races will encourage our cultivated men to parade themselves as mere carpet knights upon the stage of politics, or, in the saloons of
aestheticism, and they, themselves, assume the added duty of the moral and material restoration of our race? Whereever has philanthropy shown itself thus overofficious and superserviceable? Never in the history of man has it either assumed superfluous cares or indulged a people in irresponsible diversions. 

And next^ as to the other question ”How this problem of labor is to be settled?” I reply; in all candor, that I am unable to answer so intricate a question. But this I do say, (1) that you have got to bring to the settlement of it all the brainpower, all the penetratron, all the historical reading and all the generous devotedness of heart that you can command; and (2) that in the endeavor to settle this question that you are not to make the mistake, that it is external forces which are chiefly to be brought to bear upon this enormity. No people can be lifted up by others to grand civility. The elevation of a people, their thorough civilization, comes chiefly from internal qualities. If there is no receptive and living quality in them which can be evoked for their elevation, then they must die!

The emancipation of the black race in this land from the injustice and grinding tyranny of their labor servitude is to be effected mainly by the development of such personal qualities, such thrift, energy and manliness, as shall, in the first place, raise them above the dependence and the penury of their present vassalage, and next, shall bring forth such manliness and dignity in the race as may command the respect of their oppressors.

To bring about these results we need intelligent men and women, so filled with philanthropy that they will go down to the humblest conditions of their race, and carry to their lowly huts and cabins all the resources of science, all the suggestions of domestic, social and political economies, all the appliances of school, and industries, in order to raise and elevate the most abject and needy race on American soil. If the scholarly and enlightened colored men and women care not to devote themselves to these lowly but noble duties, to these humble but sacred conditions, what is the use of their schooling and enlightenment? Why, in the course of Providence, have they had their large advantages and their superior opportunities?

3. I bring to your notice one other requirement of the black race in this country, and that is the need of a higher plane of morality, I make no excuse for introducing so delicate and, perchance, so offensive a topic a topic which necessarily implies a state of serious moral defectiveness. But if the system of slavery did not do us harm in every segment and section of our being, why have we for generations complained of it? And if it did do us moral as well as intellectual harm, why, when attempting by education to rectify the injury to the mental nature, should we neglect the reparation of the moral condition of the race? We have suffered, my brethren, in the whole domain of morals. We are still suffering as a people in this regard. […]

This moral elevation should be the highest ambition of our people. They make the greatest mistakes who tell you that money is the master need of our race. They equally err who would fain fasten your attention upon the acknowledged political difficulties which confront us in the lawless sections of the land. I acknowledge both of these grievances. But the one grand result of all my historic readings has brought to me this single and distinct conviction, that “By the soul only the nations shall be free.”

If I do not greatly err, I have made it evident to-day that a mighty revolution is demanded in our race in this country. The whole status of our condition is to be transformed and elevated. The change which is demanded is a vaster deeper one than that of emancipation. That was a change of state or condition, valuable and important indeed, but affecting mainly the outer conditions of this people. And that is all a civil status can do, how beneficent soever it may be. But outward condition does not necessarily touch the springs of life. That requires other, nobler, more spiritual agencies.

What we need is a grand moral revolution which shall touch and vivify the inner life of a people, which shall give them dissatisfaction with ignoble motives and sensual desires, which shall bring to them a resurrection from inferior ideas and lowly ambitions; which shall shed illumination through all the chambers of their souls, which shall lift them up to lofty aspirations, which shall put them in the race for manly moral superiority.

A revolution of this kind is not a gift which can be handed over by one people, and placed as a new deposit, in the constitution of another. Nor is it an acquisition to be gained by storm, by excitement or frantic and convulsive agitation, political, religious or other.

The revolution I speak of is one which must find its primal elements in qualities, latent though they be, which reside in the people who need this revolution,  and which can be drawn out of them, and thus secure form and reality.

And who are the agents to bring about this grand change in this race ?

Remember, just here, that all effectual revolutions in a people must be racial in their characteristics. You can’t take the essential qualities of one people and transfuse them into the blood of another people, and make them indigenous to them. The primal qualities of a family, a clan, a nation, a race are heritable qualities. They abide in their constitution. They are absolute and congenital things. They remain, notwithstanding the conditions and the changes of rudeness, slavery, civilization and enlightenment. The attempt to eliminate them will only serve to make a people factitious and unmanly. It is law of moral elevation that you must allow the constant abidance of the essential elements of a people’s character.

And, therefore, when I put the query ”Who are to be the agents to raise and elevate this people to a higher plane of being?” the answer will at once flash upon your intelligence. It is to be affected by the scholars and philanthropists which come forth in these days from the schools. They are to be the scholars ; for to transform, stimulate and uplift a people is a work of intelligence ; it is a work which demands the clear induction of historic facts and their application to new circumstances, a work which will require the most skillful resources and the wise practicality of superior men.

But these reformers must not be mere scholars. The intellect is to be used, but mainly as the vehicle of mind and spiritual aims. And hence, these men must needs be both scholars and philanthropists; the intellect rightly discerning the conditions, and the gracious and godly heart stimulating to the performance of the noblest duties for a people.

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