"The Negro's experiences as a sharecropper in the South were not very rewarding" & other thoughts from 1966's The First Book of American Negroes
Each Monday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets around Los Angeles.
The First Book of American Negroes
Author: Margaret Y. Young
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Publisher: Franklin Watts, Inc., New York
Discovered at: United Thrift Store, 1600 W. Washington Blvd.
The Cover Promises: Photos of famous and influential figures suggest seven possible career paths, only two of which are basketball.
"The American negro that you know best is the person whom you see, hear, or read about today. He might be Ralph Bunche or Willie Mays. He might be the man who collects your garbage or brings your mail. He might be your janitor or your teacher. He might be your friend - or he might be you."
Despite weird flourishes like the above, where author Margaret B. Young ties to wring some suspense from her readers' possible blackness, uplifting/insulting primer The First Book of American Negroes is a well-intentioned dispatch from an America we prefer to believe is in the past: one that needed to be told
"Whenever he has had the chance, the Negro has proved to himself and to other Americans that he can perform as well as any other citizen."
But Young - like too much of white America - doesn't always believe that. Writing of the millions toiled and suffered as slaves, for example, she carps:
"Many demonstrated their anger by stealing from their master, wrecking his farm machinery, or working with such a lack of enthusiasm that their labor was nothing to be proud of."
A full century after the demise of this country's greatest shame, and Young was still checking in with plantation owners for a performance review.
Young endeavors never to offend white America, which means her history of African-Americans reads, at times, like less pugnacious talk radio, forever heaping blame upon the oppressed.
In a typical passage, she writes,
"If a visitor from a foreign country were to visit the schools in many small American communities, he might notice that there are no Negro students in any of the classrooms. The reason would be that there are few, if any, Negroes living in those towns."
Yes, small Alabama schools lacked black students was because black families lacked the good taste to move to small Alabama towns. By this logic:
The reason strip-clubs are not filled with children is that children don't live near strip-clubs.
The reason rich white kids go to USC is they already live in South Central.
The reason Barrack Obama is president is he was crashing just down the block anyway.
She often struggles with cause and effect. The Negro can't get credit to start his own business, she sighs. The reason?
"Not having sufficient property to pledge as security for his loan in the even that his business fails."
Only in an aside does she mention, "It is also partly due to the pattern of denying his application for a loan due to the prejudice of the lending company."
Young even points out that in '66 the nation suffered from a glut of jobs - and too few workers to fill them. Why, then, did unemployment rates among African-Americans stay so high?
"There are many openings, however, for which the Negro worker is not prepared. He never dreamed that opportunities to work in new fields would come so fast."
Wait. The problem in 1966 was that black Americans just weren't ready for all their freedom?
Most often, Young avoids controversy in favor of bloodlessness. Here's her most Understated Topic Statements:
"After the Civil War, the Negro's experiences as a sharecropper in the South were not very rewarding."
"Although there were some owners who were reasonably kind, basically the life of a slave was a hard one."
"The hope had been that even though the school systems were separate, the money would be distributed evenly between them. But this was not the case."
"The status that the United States holds in the world of sports is due in a large measure to the performance of her Negro athletes."
The First Book of American Negroes? You mean, Wheatley, Douglass, Du Bois, Washington, Chesnutt, Toomer, Hughes, McCay, Cullen, Hurston, Larson, West, Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, and the great Ida B. Wells-Barnett never published?
Also, here's a possible burst of actual feeling, courtesy of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who represented Harlem in the House of Representatives for over twenty years.
Seriously, is he giving the man the bird?
Much of the book is written with bland dignity. Young parades noble firsts before us, and takes the time to debunk a few myths. ("Some people think that Negroes make better basketball players because they falsely believe that they have greater arm span, wider hands, or longer legs.")
In essence, her African-American history is one of vague suffering imposed by no identifiable villains, and then, hey, look, all of a sudden we get Sidney Poitier.
Her introduction, though, is a marvel of circuitousness, so idea-free and aimless it reads like a debate answer from an unprepped Tea-Partier.
"The story of Negro citizens in our country is the kind of story that it is because of events beginning on the day our country was founded. It continues to be fashioned by events - some happy and not so happy - and by people - some good and brave and some not so good or brave."
Things get even more confusing when she imagines engaging her readers in a dialogue:
"'The Negro sounds just like any other American,' you say. 'He could be anybody!' That is exactly the way that the Negro American would like others to feel about him, or if you are a Negro, it is the way you would like to feel about yourself."
Your Crap Archivist had to read that three times before understanding that "He could be anybody!" is meant to be positive, like "He could be president!" Instead, I kept reading it as a Red-Scare negative, an "You wouldn't believe who might be a Negro" right along the lines of "You wouldn't believe who might be a Communist!"
How far we've come! Today we all share an America where white people enjoy the freedom to believe both!
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