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motivation & aim

Three articles, Ghouls (June 15, 1919), Reflections on the Race Riots (August 2, 1919), and Americans and Mary Austin (October 10, 1920), Jean Toomer wrote for The New York Call in 1919 and 1920 represent his background of political and economic thinking. They remain his most militant public statements about racial matters in the United States. In ...Race Riots he prophesies movements of the 1960s, and in ...Mary Austin he shows a subtle understanding of how American prejudice spilled over lines of race or class identity or political party or regional affiliation. It was these articles which gave Toomer entry to Waldo Frank's circle, a group including Sherwood Anderson, Kenneth Burke, Hart Crane, Lewis Mumford, Gorham Munson, Georgia O'Keefe, Paul Rosenfeld, Alfred Stieglitz, and others.

The New York Call, 15 June 1919

Hither and thither among the dead and dying of the battlefield moved the crouched shadow of the ghoul. His practiced hands went about their business with a precision almost machine-like. In the gray dawn his trained eyes missed no valuable. Now and then he would have to turn a corpse that he might rifle its pockets. Infrequently he would bend lower, dislodge from the mud a severed hand, and pluck from it a ring. Only once did he hesitate; as he was about to jerk a heart-shaped locket from a slender neck, two eyes, luminous in their death stare, seemed to plead with him to spare that remembrance. His hesitation, however, was but momentary, for quickly snatching the locket he hurried on with his business. But suddenly a flash and a sharp report; the ghoul straightened, whirled, and fell amongst the misshapen forms of his helpless prey.

* * *

Seated around a hard-grained table sat the war profiteers. Their cheeks were full and their eyes glowed with the light of conquest. Slaves entered obsequiously and deposited upon the broad table a heap of coins. Coins of all shapes and sizes there were, coins stained with the tears of children, coins wrung from the breasts of mothers. The slaves retired. The profiteers rubbed their hands and swept the loot into their coffers. Many slaves entered and piled a more varied assortment upon the ample table and withdrew. Here and there a bright red coin shone out and seemed to fascinate the profiteers. But they broadly smiled and swept the mass into their coffers.

Slaves, with more gold bearing heavily upon their weary shoulders, struggled to the table and disgorged their weighty burden. The coins rolled out, red and gory with the blood of men. The slaves stared, but their masters drove them from the room and hastened back to divide the spoil. Slaves, with a peculiar light in their eyes, stalked in and placed upon the table a bundle-but they did not retire. The profiteers, mindful only of the treat before them, ripped open the bag and grabbed at its contents. But they recoiled, afraid, for they had touched there the hearts of men. 

The New York Call, 2 August 1919

The central fact emerging from the recent series of race riots is not so much that the Negro has developed an essentially new psychology, characterized by a fighting attitude. The Negro has always been conspicuous for his aggressiveness when arrayed against a foreign enemy. What is significant is that the Negro, for the first time in American history, has directed his "fight" against the iniquities of the white man in the United States. It is, of course, obvious that this fighting spirit received a decided stimulus in the form of the world war. It is likewise clear that the manifest disinclination of civil authorities to protect Negro life went far to crystalize a long smouldering resentment. Yet the outstanding feature remains, not that the Negro will fight, but that he will fight against the American white.

As long as the Negro was here passive the true solution of the race problem could wait. The South burned and lynched, and the North aided by its silence. But now, with the Negro openly resolved and prepared to resist attacks upon his person and privileges, the condition assumes a graver aspect. Immediate steps toward co-operative relations are imperative. It now confronts the nation, so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes, to either extend to the Negro (and other workers) the essentials of a democratic commonwealth or else exist from day to day never knowing when a clash may occur, in the light of which the Washington riot will diminish and pale. Clearly, then, this is no time for appeal. This is no time for academic discussion and presidential meditation. This is essentially a time for action.

Amongst those who would offer a fitting solution there is a motley group so deep in the pit of prejudice, and with vision so circumscribed by the walls of their confinement, that they would eliminate racial differences by increasing the very acts which immediately caused them. They would have the fist of the white man educate the brain of the black. And where common, everyday American brutishness proved to no avail, lynching-bees and burning-fests would be substituted. Thus would they hold up to the eyes of the world the salutary effects of depravity. As those in this class are their own and only counsellors, none may advise them, nor can they counsel others wisely.

Then there is a second group which limits its suggestions to the worn-out method of "constitutional rights for the Negro," who seem to believe that therein lies the sole solvent of racial antagonisms. Quite naturally, believing as they do in the adequacy of our governmental machinery, and certain as they are of the essential goodness of all Americans, they deplore the Negro's fighting psychology, contending with irrefrangible logic that "two wrongs never make a right."

As to the extension of constitutional rights-it should be apparent that under this very constitution the country has come to this crisis. To fit a worn-out coat on the Negro will not alter the essential character of things. Race riots are prevalent in Chicago, where Negroes enjoy political privilege. In effect, the constitution gives no more. The solution, then, must lie deeper than mere suffrage.

As to deploring the new spirit and attitude of the Negro there is much to be said. Not a few who condemn the Negro's "fight" would be themselves the first to fight under like circumstances. Their quarrel is not with fight, per se (a war with Mexico would meet with their hearty approval), but with the Negro (or any other worker), who displays an active unwillingness to submit to injustices. Such a Negro is difficult to exploit.

But over against those whose rhetoric covers their intention are individuals who, in all sincerity, believe physical resistance or aggression, as a means to an end, a discredited institution. And, on the whole, they are in the right. But this one conditioning factor should be noted. In this instance the choice of means-the prerogative-is not with the Negro. If a man would shoot you, and there be no one to prevent him, you must shoot first. Life permits of nothing less. In substance, just this condition prevailed in Washington. Not only did the civil authorities offer little or no protection, but in all too numerous cases were themselves the assailants. Those, then, who would aid in the present crisis would do well to focus attention and action upon those fundamental and determining causes which have irresistibly drawn the Negro into his present position. To do this brings one adjacent to the thought and action of the labor movement.

In the literature of the Socialist movement in this country there is to be found a rational explanation of the causes of race hatred, and, in the light of these, a definite solution, striking at the very root of the evil, is proposed. It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another, and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition. If this be true, then it follows that the nucleus of race co-operation lies in the substitution of a socialized community for a competitive one. To me, it appears that nothing less than just such an economic readjustment will ever bring concord to the two races; for, as long as there are governing classes and as long as these classes feel it to their gain to keep the masses in constant conflict, just so long will a controlled press and educational system incite and promote race hatred. Where there is advantage to be secured by racial antagonisms, heaven and hell will be invoked to that purpose. Demagogues may storm and saints may plead, but America will remain a grotesque stormcenter, tom by passion and hatred, until our democratic pretensions are replaced by a socialized reality.

The New York Call, 10 October 1920

Though we are some distance from a realization of the race to be known as the American, yet in general contour and aspirations it is visible to those who see. It is certain that it will be a composite one, including within itself, in complementing harmony, all races. It will be less conscious of its composite character than the English are of theirs, and it will be considerably more aware of the grandeur of its destiny. The splendid fire of this latter will effectively coalesce what straggling tendencies to antagonism and disruption may still be hanging over from the former individual race consciousnesses. The resultant temper will be broad, inclusive, aware of one race only, and that the American. In fine, in our future national type humanity will have again achieved the constructive association of its varied elements.

If this is true, then it follows that, individually and collectively, we are distant from the true American (racially) in just that proportion as we are mindful of former race affiliations. Applying this test to the United States of today, some idea of the assimilative processes yet required to produce our ideal type will be manifest. Street conversations quite generally revolve around "nigger," "cracker," "wop," "kike," "polak," "greaser" and "foreigner" and the like. While in the drawing rooms where esthetic pretensions gloss over a poverty of moral and human values, the same sentiments find expression in a weaker but less offensive vocabulary. It is a bitter dose for a certain class of Gentiles to think of the future Americans including Jewish blood; and it is equally galling for the Orthodox Jew to contemplate the fusion of the Hebrew and the Christian. It would occasion a rupture of friendship, if not a fight, to suggest to the average white man that the blood of his future grandchildren will commingle [with Negroes. In addition there is the] current nonsense among [the] Negroes of the white race being degenerate. Asiatic eyes in the progeny of the Californian is a frequent and current coast nightmare. And all who are American citizens in name are at one in crying horrors at the foreigner. And yet there is nothing more certain than that these seeming ill dreams, frightful to the narrow and the prejudiced as are nature's elements to the uninformed, will come to pass. And there is tremendous good inherent in their certainty. In them rests the seed of the true American, the evolved spiritual pioneer of humanity.

National ideals, varied, and more or less partial and confused, have a host of followers. It is claimed by all the foremost of our institutions and societies that they are integral in the formation of our national character. Our arts are dynamic in their desire to produce something uniquely American. And then, too, there is a body of workers, known as the Americanists, who are devoting energies to research in aboriginal society,art and culture. From the materials thus released many are making deductions as to the future of our present country and the lines along which it may be expected to progress. Thus, it is clear that much effort is being spent to crystallize a national type. But an effort, even when sincere, need be neither intelligent nor sympathetic: it quite frequently omits both these happy attributes, contenting itself with mere functioning. And so, many energies, directed at our evolution, have been degraded, producing no salutary or compensating effects. An interesting case in point recently appeared in the columns of the Nation. In an article, entitled "New York: Dictator of American Criticism," Mary Austin, an American, and undoubtedly having at heart the interests of the national culture, protests to New York against its obvious ascendancy in the matters of criticism and intellectual initiative.

Any centralized control exasperates the provinces, especially if these provinces be conscious of their identity and zealous of their local rights. So it is not surprising that Miss Austin should voice a protest against the usurpation of democratic prerogatives by a group centered in New York. The validity of this protest, as respects New York, however, seems to me to revolve around the question: Is the ascendancy of this group due to an exclusive control of the means of expression; i.e. the publishing houses and the reviews, or does the dominancy of the group rest solely on its intellectual attainments? If the South and the West may not be heard because of the former, then the protest is a serious one and should commend itself to the sense of economic freedom of thoughtful Americans. If, on the other hand, the combined voices of all "extra-New Yorkers" is not sufficient to be heard above a small Manhattan group, then the protest loses none of its seriousness, but its appeal should be transferred from the economic sense to the shame of every one concerned with the cultural growth of this country.

As I read Miss Austin's article I am led to conclude, in absence of clear proof to the contrary, that New York and the New Yorkers are dictators of American criticism for the same reason that Moscow and the Bolsheviki are dictators of the present course of Russia, namely, that they are doing the job better than any others are now capable of doing it. Thus, it seems to me that Miss Austin's quarrel is not so much with New York as with that "vast extra-Manhattan territory" of which she speaks. Such an address to them would undoubtedly spur them toward an articulate consciousness of their own strength and responsibilities.

Miss Austin is decidedly positive in her indication of the Americans. Whether the expression, the form and the substance of an attained American consciousness will be derived from the cultural resources of the Indian or not is a matter of question, the solution of which cannot concern us here. What is of moment is that a group of workers have turned over a body of knowledge, the essence of which is unknown to America at large. This omission places a handicap on every effort at a true interpretation and understanding of what is comprehensively American. Energy directed toward the removal of this handicap is in the nature of a national service. Miss Austin, in this instance, has rendered just such a service.

My next point is pertinent. It regards her stated attitude toward the Jews. Miss Austin opens this phase of her subject by wondering "what part is played in this schism between literature and the process of nationalization by the preponderance of Jews among our critical writers." I cannot for a moment admit that such a schism does exist between literature and the process of nationalization, as I know them. But, as this subject can only adequately be handled in a more extensive paper, I shall have to leave it an undetermined possibility and pass to her next passage.

"There is nothing un-American in being a Jew," says Miss Austin. Certainly not. But why state the obvious? Once made, such statements are never without their contrary implications. And, when sincerity is the question, one feels it better to have left such things unsaid. But to continue: "It is part of our dearest tradition that no derivation from any race or religion inhibits a contribution to our national whole." Nor is this passage effective. Miss Austin knows that in practice it does not now obtain. She need look no further than her own California and its relation to the Japanese to feel the error of this remark. "We could not without serious loss subtract the Jewish contribution from our science or our economics, or dispense with the services of the younger Jewish publishers. It is only when the Jew attempts the role of interpreter of our American expression that the valadity [sic] of the racial bias comes into question."

Frankly, I know of no immediate analogy to the sentiment here expressed other than that of the average Southern white in his attitude toward the Negro. I can imagine him saying: "No, th' nigger ain't un-American, so far as that goes; a good nigger's all right. An' he's damn useful pickin' cotton. But let him keep away from them polls. I ain't going to have no nigger legislating for me." Nor does the difference in the phases of human effort lessen the force of the analogy. In both cases there are prejudice and racial consciousness, whereas a national consciousness without prejudice is the aim.

Miss Austin then asks: "Can the Jew, with his profound complex of election, his need of sensuous satisfaction qualifying his every expression of personal life, and his short pendulum swing between mystical orthodoxy and a sterile ethical culture-can he become the commentator, the arbiter, of American art and American thinking?" From the position taken at the beginning of this article it is clear that no racial or religious unit thus conscious of past affiliations can truly reflect America, the evolved American. The point in question is, Are the Jews such a unit? Is Miss Austin exact in her conception of them? To support an implied negative answer to her question, Miss Austin cites Waldo Frank's "Our America." Her short review of it does not convince me. As to the "complex of election," admitting a want as regards the Americanists, which want, by the way, I can picture most Catholics or Protestants capable of, how many men are there to name other than the "gentlemen" Mr. Frank chooses? A single volume may not be inclusive. Selection is imposed upon it. And in justice preference must be given those whose known output demands it. I think Mr. Frank's choice admirable, and fail to see in it any strict evidence of a peculiar complex of election. Turning to the pages of his book, I am deeply convinced as to the essential American origin and nurture of its fibres. Evidence of a distinct "need of sensuous satisfaction" and "pendulum swing" in this case is not available.

It thus appears to me that what was nominally a valid protest against the one-sided development of the American intellect degenerates into a force misdirected against the intellect vested in a single race. Desiring the inevitable amalgamation and consequent cultural unity, Miss Austin's article has given new cause for old race consciousness. Aiming at a community of cultured differences, she serves the cause of disunion. With her soul toward the realizable ideal, her eyes still focus on the unfused metals of the melting pot. And what is true of this writer obtains for millions of those who live within the political boundaries of the United States, augmented in these latter, of course, by the crudity of their expression and the essential poverty of their lives. Yet, and nothing is more certain, from just such stuff will a continent of Walt Whitmans evolve, universal in their sympathies and godlike of soul.