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.
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 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 white traducers who, not unfrequently, impute to us an 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.
Recollection 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.
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 [the worst of] it. The thought, the routine, the usages, and calculations of that old system are to be 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 need 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. 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; and without let or hindrance, because of race or former condition.
At the same time, I must remind you here that 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 a 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 ; 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 benight. 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.
THE STATUS OF THE FAMILY.
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 can come to any people. Just here, then, we have got to begin the work of reconstruction and up-building.
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.
THE CONDITIONS OF LABOR.
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 labor, with all its intelligence and its safeguards, is fretting under a deep sense of inequality, wrong, and injustice.
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 manner, with the least waste, for the largest remuneration, and with the most self-command. Where the laborer is crude, blind, uninformed and merely mechanical in his work, 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.
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 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.
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, 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.
Here is the fact that most men and women of our race are toiling, have been toiling for years, for white 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 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!
”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.
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.
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.
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 to 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 [and works].
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 our 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 is, 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 intelligent ones.
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 channels; the intellect rightly discerning the conditions, and the gracious and godly heart stimulating to the performance of the noblest duties for our people.