To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature contact us | site guide | search 
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Identity
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Identity
Text 1. Charles W. Chesnutt
Text 2. W.E.B. Du Bois
Text 3. Self Image
Text 4. Public Image
Text 5. Racial Identity
Text 6. History
Text 7. Culture
Text 8. Africa

Timeline: 1860-1920


   Resource Menu

PL of Charlotte
& Mecklenberg Co., NC
Minnie and Oscar Jackson and their daughter Cecelia
ca. 1920

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans create personal and group identity after emancipation?
  •  How did the challenge differ for those who were previously enslaved and those who were not?
  •  How is Christianity central to African Americans' search for identity in this period?
  •  How does a culturally disenfranchised group create a "usable past" that guards truth yet nourishes the future?

»RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  1.  Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Wife of His Youth," short story, 1898

From slavery to freedom, and through freedom to . . . selfhood. As formidable a transition, perhaps, as creating a post-slavery livelihood. Where do I fit in the white world? in the black world? What past do I claim? What future can I envision? What legacy do I pass to my children? How do I introduce myself to my self? All within the sphere of another challenge—how do I stay safe in a hostile society that denies my personhood?

To pursue these questions, we turn again to Charles Chesnutt. The son of free blacks and a teacher of emancipated slaves, Chesnutt strove in his fiction to promote whites' respect for African Americans and the profound challenges they faced after emancipation. In "The Wife of His Youth," he presents Mr. Ryder, a man of "mixed blood" born free in Missouri but apprenticed to a plantation owner after becoming orphaned. Twenty-five years later he is a member of the northern black elite. Self-taught and a natural leader, he justifiably prides himself on his hard-won status. And as a "mulatto," he feels driven to promote high standards of decorum among his acquaintances. The motto "Self-preservation is the first law of nature" defines his identity. And then one day his past arrives at his doorstep. Does he acknowledge his past? What consequences will he face if he does, and if he does not? How does he decide to decide? A must-read for this section. 10 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  2.  W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, Ch. 1, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings"

We also return to Du Bois in this section for his poignant declaration of the African American's quest for identity—the "longing to attain self-conscious manhood." Although granted freedom, citizenship, and suffrage by the Civil War amendments, the emancipated black person had yet to be seen as a person by white society—and, often, by himself or herself. By the fact of being black, one qualified as a "problem." By the fact of being black, one had to maintain a "double consciousness"—looking at oneself first through the eyes of white society. How does selfhood survive these obstacles? How does one maintain self-respect in this environment? Where does one find solace from the strife?

Du Bois's responses to these questions reflect his perspective as an educated northern black man. Born in 1868 in Massachusetts into a family that had long been free, Du Bois pursued education with intense intellectual fervor. Beginning his college education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, he was exposed to the plight of former slaves living in the hostile South. After completing a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, he returned to the South to teach, soon becoming a spokesman for equal political rights for African Americans. A vital text, especially for the "vocabulary" of identity and selfhood that he created for his times. 7 pages.

Note: Du Bois opens each chapter of Souls with a poetic verse and the score of a spiritual (a "sorrow song"). In chapter one, the spiritual is "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and the verse is Arthur Symon's "The Crying of Water."

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  3.  Self-Image
- "Race Love," A. M. E. Church Review, editorial, April 1886
- Paul Laurence Dunbar, four poems, 1890s

"Self-esteem" is a catchword in our times, implying the luxury of self-absorption and the shirking of group attachment. Here we must turn back our perspective, however, and view self-esteem in the context of a people emerging from enslavement, where legally they were not persons and theologically, to some, they had no souls. In the first piece, from the official organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (one of the first independent African American denominations), we follow a step-by-step argument for blacks adopting a "self first" philosophy in order to create a viable future. This editorial is paired with four poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, called the "poet laureate of the Negro race" by the black leader Mary Church Terrell, and one of the few postbellum black poets to be widely read by a white audience. Born in 1872 in Ohio to parents who had been enslaved, Dunbar was a gifted writer whose poems appeared in national periodicals before he was 25 years old. White readers read his dialect poems as entertainment, but Dunbar explored black identity in both his dialect and classical poems. Worthwhile to compare with Du Bois. 6 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  4.  Public Image
- The "Negro banjo player": images from the 19th century
- W. E. B. Du Bois, African American photographs assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition

The "Negro" stereotypes that pervaded mass media at this time ranged from the dehumanizing "mammy" and "Tom" caricatures to the grossly debasing and incendiary depictions of the lustful "brute" (used as the core image in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation). Valentine cards depicting gleeful "colored boys" eating watermelon, cereal boxes touting "pickaninny" and "coon" logos—even photograph postcards of mobs and their lynch victims—were marketed as standard consumer fare. What effect did such images have on blacks' self-image? on whites' image of justice and equality? How did black leaders work to counter this imagery?

To address these questions we view two sets of images. The first consists of seven images of the "Negro banjo player," most depicting the common stereotype of a benign carefree black man engaged in trivial leisure. The first six images were created by white men, while the final image, The Banjo Lesson, was painted by the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (after his emigration to France). While these images do not include the most offensive depictions of the time, they offer a solid starting point for discussion. The second set of images was compiled for the explicit purpose of countering these negative images. For the American Negro Pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition, W. E. B. Du Bois compiled two albums of photographs entitled "Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A." and "Negro Life in Georgia, U.S.A."; they display the wide variety of physical features and social status among African Americans in just one state (a former slave state as well). As Du Bois asserted in Paris, these images "hardly square with conventional American ideas" of black identity and achievement. His efforts were no match for the pervasive stereotypes, of course, but they represent the beginning of an active campaign to counter the dehumanizing imagery mass-produced by white society. 4 printout pages, plus online viewing of the Du Bois albums (from which you may choose to print a selection).

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  5.  Racial Identity
- James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, novel, 1912, excerpts on race
- Alice Dunbar-Nelson, "The Stones of the Village," short story, ca. 1905

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line"—Du Bois's prescient declaration in 1903—defines the issue in these two readings. Not only the color line between white and black, but the color line dividing black people of differing pigmentation, drives the personal crises in these works. In both, the protagonist makes the moral choice to pass as white, with consequences, good and bad, for which they must answer to themselves.

Black writer and poet James Weldon Johnson published his fictional Autobiography anonymously in 1912, and later in 1927 under his name when he was director of the NAACP. The excerpts presented here include the protagonist's discovery that he is the "mulatto" son of a rich southern white man, his first experience with the color line in primary school, and later his adult's view of the color line and his self-judgment for passing as white. The second work is a short story by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who was born in New Orleans to parents of black, white, and Native American ancestry (and briefly married to poet Paul Laurence Dunbar). Her protagonist, Victor, is a light-skinned black man who is mistaken for white when he takes his first job as a young boy. Circumstances allow him to maintain his façade for years, during which he becomes a successful attorney and politician, and marries into a prestigious white family. As in Weldon's novel, the story is driven by Victor's incessant self-questioning, and ends with his self-judgment. Poignant fiction that propels the reader, regardless of race, to self-scrutiny. 25 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  6.  History
- Edward Johnson, A School History of the Negro Race in America, 1890/1911, excerpts
- Meta Warrick, "Negro Tableaux" created for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, 1907

In Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington mourns the freed slaves' lack of ancestry—a shared sense of family, tradition, and identity with which to envision a future. "The influence of ancestry," he says, "is important in helping forward any individual or race." Not just for identity—but for moral example, communal strength, and promised resilience. "The fact that the individual has behind and surrounding him proud family history," Washington emphasizes, ". . . serves as a stimulus to help him to overcome obstacles when striving for success."

Thus one finds, among the first African American publications after the Civil War, stirring histories of the black American experience. Emphasizing justifiable pride in race, and encouraging readers to emulate their forebears' achievements, these histories provided a jump-start, so to speak, in the quest for identity. Here we read from a history written for schoolchildren by Edward Johnson, a black teacher in North Carolina. In his preface he challenges his fellow educators to "see to it that the word Negro is written with a capital N," and that their students will "magnify the race it stands for." The second "history" is a unique set of dioramas depicting African American history, created by the black sculptress Meta Warrick for the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition. A teacher's introduction to the "tableaux," written by historian and National Humanities Center Fellow W. Fitzhugh Brundage, is included for background and to stimulate analysis of the dioramas as art and as history. 12 pages, plus online viewing of the dioramas and background photos (of which you may choose to print a selection).

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  7.  Culture
- James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, novel, 1912, excerpts on culture
- Spirituals performed by the Jubilee Singers, Fisk University, 1998-1999, five audioclips
- Cake walk performed by the Americus Quartet, 1900, two videoclips
- Eubie Blake, interview on ragtime, 1970, with audioclip

We return to Johnson's Autobiography for his call to pride in black cultural achievements—and his distress that his fellow African Americans often regarded them with shame. "It is my opinion," he writes, "that the colored people of this country have done four things which refute the oft advanced theory that they are an absolutely inferior race"—spirituals, Uncle Remus stories, the cakewalk, and ragtime. Excerpted here are several of his first-time experiences—hearing "Jubilee songs" at a southern camp meeting, attending a competitive cakewalk dance, and travelling among southern rural African Americans. In each he counters prevailing black and white notions that belittle the "power of creating" evident in the cultural forms.

After reading Johnson, you can view online videoclips of the cakewalk as filmed in 1900, and listen to audioclips of five spirituals as performed by the current Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, who are carrying on the tradition of the first Singers, former slaves who began touring in the 1870s to raise money for Fisk and soon became internationally renowned. Finally, we read a 1970 interview with Eubie Blake, one of the first widely known performers of ragtime, and listen to an audioclip of his 1899 piece "Charleston Rag." Ragtime was considered "low music," he explains, and was shunned by many black Americans (including his mother who forbade ragtime in her house). A valuable collection of text and audio-visual primary sources to advance your discussion of racial pride and the differing criteria African Americans brought to the issue in the early 1900s. (We do not include the well-known Uncle Remus stories here. Websites with the stories are included in the Supplemental Links for this topic.) 10 pages, including the background information accompanying the audio- and videoclips.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  8.  Africa
- Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, "The American Negro and His Fatherland," address, 1895

In the half century between the antebellum migrations to Liberia and the black nationalist movement of Marcus Garvey, the leader of the "back to Africa" movement was Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, a bishop of the A. M. E. Church. After visiting Africa several times, he urged emigration not only for economic opportunity and freedom from white dominance, but for essential black identity and pride. One cannot have "any hope for a race of people who do not believe they look like God," he asserted in an 1898 editorial entitled "God Is a Negro." "This is one of the reasons we favor African emigration . . . for, as long as we remain among the whites, the Negro will believe that the devil is black and that he (the Negro) favors the devil, . . . and the effects of such a sentiment is contemptuous and degrading." He expounds on this theme in the address here, delivered at the Congress on Africa held in conjunction with the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta (where Booker T. Washington delivered his "Atlanta compromise" speech). Total pages: 3.

Note: Although this is the last AFRICA section in the toolbox, the texts in the next three topics contain numerous examples of black Americans' self-referencing to Africa.

Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Freedom | Identity | Institutions | Politics | Forward

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © 2004 National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: January 2014