Earliest known biography of an African woman translated to English for the first time
Peonage by Lafayette M. Hershaw, 1915
The Negro was kidnapped from the shores of Africa and brought into the Western Hemisphere at the beginning of the sixteenth century in order to meet the conditions growing out of an acute labor problem. The greedy and adventurous Spaniard had come to these shores in quest of gold, and after years of experiment he discovered that the Indian, who lived in the islands and on the coast of the New World, either would not or was not physically able to perform the heavy labor of extracting gold from the mines. To meet his greedy quest, it was then necessary to look elsewhere to find the man who was feeble enough in will and strong enough in body to meet the conditions which then presented themselves. The African was that man. It is not the purpose of these reflections to deal with the institution of slavery other than to point out that what slavery is appears altogether from the point of view of the one who discusses it. It is common nowadays to refer to it as a practical institution by means of which the savage African was brought under the beneficent influences of Christianity, taught the English language, and the joy of intelligently directed labor. But before the beginning of the institution as a means of meeting the needs of work, the moralist considered it as the sum of all villainies, the reformer termed it the negation of all right. But the economist looks at it as a system of labor, and the historian and philosopher, as a step in the progress of the human race from the time when savages were put to death when taken in battle to the time when men realized that they could eat bread by the sweat of other men’s faces.
Source: Project Gutenberg, Occasional Papers, No. 15. The American Negro Academy. Peonage by Lafayette M. Hershaw, Washington, DC: Published By The Academy, 1915.
Impressions of Johann D. Schoepf, 1784
“The condition of the Carolina negro slaves is in general harder and more troublous than that of their northern brethren. On the rice plantations, with wretched food, they are allotted more work and more tedious work; and the treatment which they experience at the hands of the overseers and owners is capricious and often tyrannical. In Carolina (and in no other of the North American states) their severe handling has already caused several uprisings among them. There is less concern here as to their moral betterment, education, and instruction, and South Carolina appears little inclined to initiate the praiseworthy and benevolent ordinances of its sister states in regard to the negro. It is sufficient proof of the bad situation in which these creatures find themselves here that they do not multiply in the same proportions as the white inhabitants, although the climate is more natural to them and agrees with them better. Their numbers must be continually kept up by fresh importations; to be sure, the constant taking up of new land requires more and more working hands, and the pretended necessity of bringing in additional slaves is thus warranted in part; but close investigation makes it certain that the increase of the blacks in the northern states, where they are handled more gently, is vastly more considerable. The gentlemen in the country have among their negroes as the Russian nobility among the serfs, the most necessary handicrafts-men, cobblers, tailors, carpenters, smiths, and the like, whose work they command at the smallest possible price or for nothing almost. There is hardly any trade or craft which has not been learned and is not carried on by negroes, partly free, partly slave; the latter are hired out by their owners for day’s wages. Charleston swarms with blacks, mulattoes and mestizos; their number greatly exceeds that of the whites, but they are kept under strict order and discipline, and the police has a watchful eye upon them. These may nowhere assemble more than 7 male negro slaves; their dances and other assemblies must stop at 10 o’clock in the evening; without permission of their owners none of them may sell beer or wine or brandy. There are here many free negroes and mulattoes. They get their freedom if by their own industry they earn enough to buy themselves off, or their freedom is given them at the death of their masters or in other ways. Not all of them know how to use their freedom to their own advantage; many give themselves up to idleness and dissipation which bring them finally to crafty deceptions and thievery. They are besides extraordinarily given to vanity, and love to adorn themselves as much as they can and to conduct themselves importantly.”
Source: Johann D. Schoepf, “Travels in the Confederation,” 1784, p. 220.
Excerpt From The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States, 1921
In his lecture on “The Poetic Principle,” in leading down to his definition of poetry, Edgar Allan Poe has called attention to the three faculties, intellect, feeling, and will, and shown that poetry, that the whole realm of aesthetics in fact, is concerned primarily and solely with the second of these. Does it satisfy a sense of beauty? This is his sole test of a poem or of any work of art, the aim being neither to appeal to the intellect by satisfying the reason or inculcating truth, nor to appeal to the will by satisfying the moral sense or inculcating duty.
The standard has often been criticized as narrow; yet it embodies a large and fundamental element of truth. If in connection with it we study the Negro we shall find that two things are observable. One is that any distinction so far won by a member of the race in America has been almost always in some one of the arts; and the other is that any influence so far exerted by the Negro on American civilization has been primarily in the field of aesthetics. To prove the point we may refer to a long line of beautiful singers, to the fervid oratory of Douglass, to the sensuous poetry of Dunbar, to the picturesque style of DuBois, to the mysticism of the paintings of Tanner, and to the elemental sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller. Even Booker Washington, most practical of Americans, proves the point, the distinguishing qualities of his speeches being anecdote and brilliant concrete illustration.
Everyone must have observed a striking characteristic of the homes of Negroes of the peasant class in the South. The instinct for beauty insists upon an outlet, and if one can find no better picture he will paste a circus poster or a flaring advertisement on the walls. Very few homes have not at least a geranium on the windowsill or a rosebush in the garden. If also we look at the matter conversely we shall find that those things which are most picturesque make to the Negro the readiest appeal. Red is his favorite color simply because it is the most pronounced of all colors. Goethe’s “Faust” can hardly be said to be a play primarily designed for the galleries. One never sees it fail, however, that in any Southern city this play will fill the gallery with the so-called lower class of Negro people, who would never think of going to another play of its class, but different; and the applause never leaves one in doubt as to the reasons for Goethe’s popularity. It is the suggestiveness of the love scenes, the red costume of Mephistopheles, the electrical effects, and the rain of fire that give the thrill desired—all pure melodrama of course. “Faust” is a good show as well as a good play.
In some of our communities Negroes are frequently known to “get happy” in church. Now a sermon on the rule of faith or the plan of salvation is never known to awaken such ecstasy. This rather accompanies a vivid portrayal of the beauties of heaven, with the walls of jasper, the angels with palms in their hands, and (summum bonum!) the feast of milk and honey. And just here is the dilemma so often faced by the occupants of pulpits in Negro churches. Do the people want scholarly training? Very often the cultured preacher will be inclined to answer in the negative. Do they want rant and shouting? Such a standard fails at once to satisfy the ever-increasing intelligence of the audience itself. The trouble is that the educated minister too often leaves out of account the basic psychology of his audience. That preacher who will ultimately be the most successful with a Negro congregation will be the one who to scholarship and culture can best join brilliant imagination and fervid rhetorical expression. When all of these qualities are brought together in their finest proportion the effect is irresistible.
Gathering up the threads of our discussion so far, we find that there is constant striving on the part of the Negro for beautiful or striking effect, that those things which are most picturesque make the readiest appeal to his nature, and that in the sphere of religion he receives with most appreciation those discourses which are most imaginative in quality. In short, so far as the last point is concerned, it is not too much to assert that the Negro is thrilled not so much by the moral as by the artistic and pictorial elements in religion.
But there is something deeper than the sensuousness of beauty that makes for the possibilities of the Negro in the realm of the arts, and that is the soul of the race. The wail of the old melodies and the plaintive quality that is ever present in the Negro voice are but the reflection of a background of tragedy. No race can rise to the greatest heights of art until it has yearned and suffered. The Russians are a case in point. Such has been their background in oppression and striving that their literature and art are to-day marked by an unmistakable note of power. The same future beckons to the American Negro. There is something very elemental about the heart of the race, something that finds its origin in the African forest, in the sighing of the night-wind, and in the falling of the stars. There is something grim and stern about it all, too, something that speaks of the lash, of the child torn from its mother’s bosom, of the dead body riddled with bullets and swinging all night from a limb by the roadside.
So far we have elaborated a theory. Let us not be misunderstood. We do not mean to say that the Negro cannot rise to great distinction in any sphere other than the arts. He has already made a noteworthy beginning in pure scholarship and invention; especially have some of the younger men done brilliant work in science. We do mean to say, however, that every race has its peculiar genius, and that, so far as we can at present judge, the Negro, with all his manual labor, is destined to reach his greatest heights in the field of the artistic. But the impulse needs to be watched. Romanticism very soon becomes unhealthy. The Negro has great gifts of voice and ear and soul; but so far much of his talent has not soared above the stage of vaudeville. This is due most largely of course to economic instability. It is the call of patriotism, however, that America should realize that the Negro has peculiar gifts which need all possible cultivation and which will someday add to the glory of the country. Already his music is recognized as the most distinctive that the United States has yet produced. The possibilities of the race in literature and oratory, in sculpture and painting, are illimitable.
Source: Excerpt From The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States by Benjamin Brawley, New York: Duffield & Company, 1921.
Image: Paul Laurence Dunbar