“Realizing the need of an organization to bring together the few colored students attending the college and universities of Chicago in summer and living in various parts of the city, two social workers, Miss Mary McDowell and Mrs. Celia Parker Wooley, along with Mr. George Arthur, Executive Secretary of the Wabash Ave. Dept. Y.M.C.A., assisted in establishing the first meeting of its kind about 1909.” Thus begins one section of the “Intercollegiate Wonder Book.” Printed in 1927, the book was compiled and much of it written by the Intercollegiate Club’s then-president Frederic H. Robb, who graduated from Hartford Public High School in 1920. His brief biography on page eight lists such impressive accomplishments as graduating from Howard in 3 ¼ years, obtaining a Northwestern J.D., and winning 13 and tying two of 16 debates in Chicago. It ends with the words “It can be done” in quotes. Those four words are the real purpose of the “Wonder Book:” to be an ode to, and a goad to, getting into college and accomplishing great things. In my book Black Writing from Chicago, I included three short pieces and a remarkable cartoon related to that third piece. Bill Moore’s cartoon—six panels, the first two reproduced below—is said to have been “inspired by Horace Bond’s Address at the Intercollegiate’s Grace Lyceum Program” and is titled “The Intercollegiate’s New Negro.”
In the middle of the “Wonder Book”’s title page is this description: “Survey of the Negro’s Educational, Athletic, Civic and Commercial Life from 1779 to 1927. History, Who’s Who in Chicago, Directory, Facts and Figures About the Negro for 8000 years.” In its own way it just about delivers all this, providing a remarkable window into a rising segment of Chicago black life in the late ‘twenties, and testifying to Robb’s and others’ efforts to draw black students into a powerful, organized community. Between inspirational and historical essays and pages of facts and figures are lists upon lists: of Chicago civic leaders, of Chicago musicians, even of suggested events the Intercollegiate Club can plan for the future to entertain its members, to urge them to travel, to highlight avenues to community involvement, and to “Encourage Students to Take Part in Extra Curricular Activities.”
One cannot not be in wonder of the Wonder Book’s shining vision and feel encouraged by its courage. But every moment up to its publication and since has shown that vision to be perhaps too naive: racism in America is an issue seemingly incapable of being solved by showing off the accomplishments of Blacks. The New Negro movement, centered in 1920’s Harlem, held out the hope that if blacks fought hard enough and accomplished outrageous feats of social and cultural greatness racism would fall away. Again, it’s a vision one cannot not be thrilled by; and its goals and sentiments are understandable for its time and something to be aspired to today. Yet the New Negro movement came under intense criticism from many, perhaps especially in Chicago, where the question of whether one could be Black and become a full-fledged, respected member of society was a central debate, one that is at the heart of my Black Writing from Chicago book, which I signified by the book’s subtitle, a question: In the World, Not of It?
The cartoon above testifies to one of the central problems of the New Negro: it often created a split between the supposed New Negro and “less progressive members of his race.” Racist jokes couldn’t possibly apply to the New Negro, could they? They targeted his superstitious, less progressive, low-down brothers and sisters. In a later chapter of Black Writing from Chicago, I included an excerpt from Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, which details his first meeting with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In that excerpt, Obama comments on a brochure listing the core beliefs of Wright’s church, Trinity Church. Obama is particularly captured by the belief titled “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness.” It explains that while it’s permissible to chase middle-incomeness, Blacks must avoid “the psychological entrapment of Black ‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother and sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!” It calls Blacks to disavow the very sentiments of the cartoon above. Other writers in Black Writing from Chicago—Leanita McClain, Hoyt W. Fuller, Ronald L. Fair, and more—express their disgust with Black middleclassness in much, much stronger terms.
Though I paint this “In-the-World-Not-of-It” tension as centered in Chicago, of course reaction against the New Negro concept—a concept that birthed a large portion of the Black middle class—was widespread. Perhaps its most acute critic was James Baldwin, who owed much to Chicago but was a son of Harlem, where The New Negro concept took its most potent form. In his great essay “Many Thousands Gone” Baldwin writes:
“Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom are dead, their places taken by a group of amazingly well-adjusted young men and women, almost as dark, but ferociously literate, well-dressed and scrubbed, who are never laughed at, who are not likely to ever set foot in a cotton or tobacco field or in any but the most modern kitchens. There are others who remain, in our odd idiom, ‘underprivileged’…Before, however, our joy at the demise of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom approaches the indecent, we had better ask whence they sprang, how they lived?” Baldwin goes on to directly criticize “the gospel of the New Negro,” saying in essence that jests upon “the stupidity of the less-progressive members of his race” are misplaced. Those members, not the New Negro, hold more power over, and more understanding of, whites and racist culture.
♦ I write more about Baldwin’s “Many Thousands Gone” Here (link goes live when article becomes available).
♦ See also my article on Marita Bonner. I write about her in Black Writing from Chicago, though did not include any of her work. She both embraced and questioned—from a gender, class, and multicultural perspective—the New Negro concept, as did James David Corrothers, a writer I did include in Black Writing from Chicago.