Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 98: Mary Church Terrell, What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States (#55)

Mary Church Terrell, "What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States" (1907) from American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton:

One of my favorite moments in Charles Chesnutt's Marrow of Tradition--oh, who am I kidding, the entire book is full of favorite moments. But one part that always cuts me deep is when a black man walks through mob-controlled Wellington and gets stopped by a bunch of white guys who think they're the law now--now and forever, I should say, since mob rule merely puts into effect what was more or less always true, according to these white supremacists. But that's not the part that gets me. (Although, after the Trayvon Martin case, I think we might want to reread Chesnutt and think about the problem he noted over a century ago.) No, the part that gets me is this:
The man who last stopped him was a well-known Jewish merchant. A Jew—God of Moses!—had so far forgotten twenty centuries of history as to join in the persecution of another oppressed race!
And so when I read Mary Church Terrell's speech and pamphlet on the contemporary problems of being black in America in 1907, I wasn't surprised to see an instance of a shop owner firing an excellent employee because she was black and reading
The proprietor of this store was a Jew, and I felt that it was particularly cruel, unnatural and cold blooded for the representative of one oppressed and persecuted race to deal so harshly and unjustly with a member of another.
In fact, since Chesnutt and Terrell are writing about the same issue in almost the same time and place, there's lots of connections and parallels: besides the "even the Jews are no help," there's the "everyone pays attention to race and no one pays attention to class and education" moment; there's the "our money isn't any good here"; there's the "other races get treated fairly"; and, above all, there's the "with so much race-mixing, what does 'black' even mean?"

Actually, I think Terrell might have the best formulation of that last problem, noting that the color line is enforced even against a man "who looks more like his paternal ancestors who fought for the lost cause than his grandmothers who were the victims of the peculiar institution"--which is a nice reminder of the violence against black women tied up with the gentility of southern slavery.

As rhetoric, Terrell hits hard on the phrase "Not long ago," reminding the listener that all of these moments of discrimination are recent (in addition to making no sense and being pointlessly cruel, especially to children whose understanding of race is simultaneous with their understanding of their exile from parks and theaters). It occasionally gets repetitive, but that's part of the rhetorical work here: to show the commonplaceness of this discrimination, which, as Terrell notes, is even more hypocritical in the capital of a country devoted to liberty and equality.

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