Social Attitudes

The Possibility of A Distinctive Culture Contribution from the American Negro

E. B. Reuter
Professor of Sociology, University of Iowa

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IN the racial literature of America there is a vague but curiously persistent belief that the American Negroes have some unique message and will make a distinctive contribution to the Western culture complex. To many of the writers the validity of this idea appears to be too obvious to require proof and they make no effort to justify the position they occupy. When the attitude is less naive, the reasons advanced in support of the belief expressed are often more ingenious than conclusive. Nevertheless, expressions of the belief appear with frequency in the scholarly as well as in the inspirational writing and it is echoed by both Negro and white journalists with great emotional certitude.

I do not here refer to the achievement of talented or fortunate individuals. It is to be anticipated that contributions to the culture heritage will be made from time to time by persons of Negroid ancestry. It is, of course, true that in the past, and for the most part in the present, the group has been culturally sterile. But this has been a direct or indirect consequence of their cultural isolation. Without a background of scholarly tradition and without the educational and disciplinary equipment essential to substantial work, the run of attention has been, for the most part, along unprofitable lines. The attention has been upon the emotional, the superficial, and the spectacular; upon show rather than upon achievement; upon form rather than upon content. The excessive attention to poetry, music, preaching, oratory, controversy, and other adolescent interests and exercises not demanding of sound education, mental discipline, critical intelligence, or rigorous thought have dissipated energy and misdirected effort. Nevertheless, a few in-

( 348) -dividuals have made some important, if minor, contributions to the culture heritage and such additions are likely to increase in number and in significance as education and other contacts bring larger numbers of the group within the essential culture thereby making possible a fuller and more complete and profitable expression of individual native capacity.

In the past the race has produced men of real talent and ability; it will presumably be able to do so in the future. That, apparently, is a matter of biological variation for which there is no present explanation or plausible hypothesis. The development of a tolerant culture will enable such variants to function to the enrichment of the culture. This is granted, but it is not of concern to the present inquiry. Pushkin, for example, was a mulatto [1] but his art was Russian and not Negroid; there was, apparently, no causal relation whatsoever between his racial ancestry and the product of his literary art. Alexandre Dumas, by all odds the most gifted of individuals with a taint of Negro blood, was only a generation removed from the offspring of a San Dominican Negress and a Napoleonic soldier.[2] But the fact that a maternal grandmother was of Negro blood does not classify his literary accomplishments as Negroid. A similar statement would hold true in regard to other individuals in the little group of talented men commonly claimed by the Negroes. But the fact that a man of creative genius is of Negro or part-Negro ancestry is a matter of complete indifference unless it can be shown that the racial connection is in some way responsible for the cultural accomplishment.

The idea persistently recurring in the literature is not that competent individual Negroes will appear and make contributions to the culture; that would, perhaps, be universally admitted. The idea is rather that the Negroes, as Negroes, have some unique contribution; some message for the enrichment of life that can come from no other source.

The belief furnishes the basis and justification of certain

(349) more or less important activities in both racial groups. Among the Negroes there is an active movement for a separate racial culture and tradition of which the recent interest in primitive African art as well as the effort to revive and preserve as Negroid various obsolete and disappearing elements from the American culture past are cases in point. A good deal of the financial and other encouragement given to Negro activities by white philanthropists and intellectuals seems to be motivated at least in some part by the expectation of some unique and valuable racial contribution.

The idea of a distinctive racial cultural contribution has a multiple origin. The vitality of the belief among some of the Negroes may best be understood as an aspiration of humiliation. It arises as a secondary consequence of social and personal abuse, exclusion, and neglect. It is essentially a method of escape from a hopelessly intolerable reality. Like the romantic constructs of other oppressed peoples, it pictures a social state that, from the restricted point of view, of the excluded group, appears tolerable if not ideal.

The belief as expressed by some of the white friends of the race is little more than a variation of this fantasy. The friendship for the race has sometimes been transmuted into a confidence in the ability of the group and this confidence into assertions of ability and predictions of achievement. Committed to this position, these white friends form an expectant audience more less eagerly awaiting some performance to justify the faith they have announced. To date the tangible accomplishment has been small and the belief in future accomplishment, at least in part and in some cases, is a rationalization of hopes in justification of a possibly hasty prediction.

There are some individuals in both races who hold the belief, since it seems to offer a romantic solution for the practical problem created by the competition of physically divergent races. The Negro is frequently advised not to imitate and compete with the white man but to develop his own distinctive culture. The advice is often emphatic but seems rarely to embody any concrete and tangible idea: sometimes -it is obviously nothing more than a verbal concealment of the irritation resulting from the presence and competition of members of the other race. In some cases the belief in Negro accomplishment takes

(350) the form of expecting a unique contribution in some special line. There are individuals who admit or even assert that nothing may be expected from the Negroes in science, industry or scholarship but who at the same time expect, by virtue apparently of some esoteric compensatory mechanism, that they will produce great things in art and literature.

But the significance of a belief may not be judged by the persons accepting the belief nor by the character of the arguments used in its defense or for its propagation. The rationale of popular beliefs is never understood by the believers. To be sure, a wide currency of any belief is at least presumptive, initial, evidence of its childishness. At the same time a belief that is widely held is a psychological reality and, independent of the rationality of the belief itself, may have profound social import. The very existence of the belief is a force making for its realization.

When attention is turned from the belief in a distinctive culture complex and the rationalizations associated with it to the question of its realization, there appear to be three possibilities. In some cases the argument is rooted in one and in other cases in another, but in the usual presentation the discussion shifts from one basis to another without the writer's awareness of the transition. The basic assumptions are never clearly differentiated and defined.

The belief is implicit in the statements of certain writers that a distinctive culture contribution will come from the American Negro group through their reinterpretation of the African heritage. This position involves two major assumptions: there are, in the native African heritage, elements of culture unknown to the European world or unappreciated by Western peoples; the American Negro group, because it is more or less within and appreciative of the European culture, is in a peculiarly advantageous position to introduce and interpret these elements of the African heritage.

There is some evidence that the early cultural status of the Africans has been underestimated. Egyptian inscriptions as well as passing comment in the Greek literature certify to the existence of a dusky people somewhere to the south. The booty secured through Sankhara's invasion of what is now Somaliland some forty-five hundred years ago was the product

( 351) of a somewhat highly developed civilization. But the relationship, if any, between this Ethiopian race and the African tribes from which the American slaves were drawn it is not possible to state. Nor is there any information concerning the decadence of this early culture.

It is also possible that the immediate African ancestors of the American Negro group had a cultural status somewhat superior to the general conception. There were, of course, great cultural variations from tribe to tribe. But in some there was developed a fairly high degree of skill in the arts of wood carving, pottery, and basketry. Some groups understood something of the elements of metallurgy: the use of iron spear heads was apparently common among some African groups while the European whites were yet in the stone age. There was some knowledge of glass and leather, and the art of weaving cloth was somewhat developed. There were tribes with some degree of political organization. The Hausa, for example, appear to have had a written language; they were large slave holders and their trading activities extended over most of the continent. Ethnological research, therefore, gives some support to the Negroes' claim to a reputable African culture heritage.

But when all this has been freely recognized, the fact remains that it contained nothing of value to civilization, and that it did not and could not influence the Negro in the American environment. In a ruthless and most efficient manner the African slaves were stripped of every element of their culture heritage. Separated from their family and tribal organizations and introduced into the midst of a foreign and more highly developed culture group, it was inevitable that all traces of the ancestral culture complex should promptly disappear. After two or three generations, and generally sooner, the culture of the Negro in America was the American culture. It was little, if any, more related to Africa than was that of the native white.

The effort of certain modern students to uncover evidences of a native African culture is good for what it is-a matter of research into historic fact. It may also have some utilitarian value from the point of view of nationalistic growth and de-

( 352) -velopment; it helps to create a sense of self-respect and a pride of race; it gives a tradition of historic greatness.

But to imagine that the American Negro is in any position to reinterpret the African culture is wholly fanciful. Even if it be granted that there is something there of value, the American Negro is as far from it in point of time and training as is the American white man. That he can develop and interpret something that he does not have and that his ancestors for some generations have not had is simply absurd. Any such idea rests upon a mistaken conception of the present and past culture status of the group, on an innocence in regard to historic fact, and on a somewhat child-like conception of the culture process. The break between the American Negro and the African culture heritage is definite, complete, and final. If the Negro is to contribute to the culture complex it will be for other reason than that his somewhat remote ancestors had the beginnings of a civilization unlike that of the European whites. That culture is lost to the American group; there is not a remote chance of their recovering either its spirit or its content.

When it is granted that the Negroes have assimilated the white culture, that the African complex so far as they are concerned is gone, the idea of a characteristic Negro contribution is not always abandoned. To be sure, the argument runs, they have lost the content of the African heritage but the inherent racial traits remain. These have not changed in the American life. Beneath the ill-fitting veneer of a foreign culture is the spirit of the African tribe and the traits of a tropical race. These inherent and unchanged characteristics of the race ultimately will get expression: they will break through the European culture inhibitions and the Negro will re-create in the new environment a culture complex in harmony with his racial nature. The Negro is conceived to be somehow psychologically different, as possessed of certain inborn qualities of mind unlike those of other men. It is believed that these distinctive qualities will express themselves eventually in a peculiar racial culture in spite of the restrictive influence of a foreign environment.

A good many writers, holding some variant of this dogma, have derived sets of Negroid racial traits and qualities from their observation of Negro behavior. The alleged characteris-

(353) -tics are in some cases contradictory and mutually exclusive and the summaries of different writers by no means always agree. But it is common to find various combinations of the following vices and virtues enumerated as descriptive of Negro human nature. They are said to have great courage and endurance; to be affectionate, cheerful, and intensely religious; emotional, submissive, and highly imaginative; shiftless, indolent, extravagant, and improvident; unreliable, untruthful, and dishonest; impulsive, intolerant of discipline, and weak in inhibitory power; vain, suspicious, and incontinent; of quick intelligence; with a talent for language; with a marked incapacity for art, rational thinking, and scientific inquiry. Such is a partial list of the capacities and incapacities popularly cited as descriptive of Negro character.

Even if it be granted that any combination of such traits are characteristic of the Negroes, they are of indifference here in so far as their possession may be understood without recourse to the theory of innate racial differences. The Negroes' status in slavery was conducive to an attitude of utter irresponsibility. Shiftlessness, indolence, lack of initiative, and the like are characteristics of backward peoples and are readily modified by their participation in the culture life of advanced groups. Religion is a characteristic of the simple mind everywhere and is perpetuated by a condition of intellectual isolation; it is exaggerated in its expression when it is made the medium of social diversion and self-expression as it has been among the Negroes. The extent to which the so-called Negro traits are cultural and not racial is indicated by the fact that the West Indian Negroes, with a personal code developed against the stolidity of an English background, are not notably emotional or submissive, are comparatively serious in their attitudes, and are relatively lacking in a sense of humor. It is also a well-known fact that the native Africans have none of the plaintive folk-music commonly attributed to the plantation Negroes in America and, indeed, appear to be notably lacking in musical ability and unappreciative of musical sounds.[1] Certainly most of the

(354) enumerated traits are cultural acquisitions and in no sense racially significant; they appear to be primitive, rather than racial, or to be the result of the peculiar social status of the race in America. In either case they are subject to immediate modification or revisal with change in the environing circumstances.

There is no intention here to deny that there may be inherent differences between the races. Such differences are, of course, obvious so far as physical characters are concerned. But perhaps no one would claim that the color of the skin and the texture of the hair are directly significant for culture.

It is frequently claimed and it may be true, though it has never been demonstrated, that there are racial differences in intellectual ability. Yet if this be true, it would not form the basis of a distinctive culture. There are talented men among the Negroes as among the whites. Any racial differences in this respect are simply differences in the percentage of superior men in each group. Under favorable conditions the talent produced will find expression in achievement. But such talent and such achievement are individual and not racial. The work of Booker T. Washington, for example, was that of a superior man in a fortunate situation. To claim it as Negro is to misunderstand the whole situation; there was nothing Negro about it, nothing that could not have been done equally well by any equally capable Oriental or white man in the same circumstances. In the same way Jews and Protestants and Republicans have made valuable culture contributions but they are the work of individuals; they are not group products.

In some cases the claim of a distinctive contribution is made to rest upon the artistic temperamental nature supposed to characterize the Negro people. We are not here concerned either with affirming or denying the assumption of racial differences in temperament but with pointing out that such differences, if they exist, afford no basis for a belief in a distinctive Negro culture in America.

If it be true, for example, that the Negroes have an unusual talent for music and are notably lacking in artistic capacity in other lines, these abilities and disabilities will operate selectively in a free situation. When it is asserted that Negroes have a peculiar aptitude for music, the statement can mean nothing more than that there are among the Negroes

( 355) more talented individuals per million of the population than among the whites. No one would assert that all Negroes have a talent for music nor deny that some white men are specially gifted in that respect. Musical composition is the work of individuals and not of groups. Quite irrespective of race, individuals will be attracted to and succeed in vocations along the line of their special abilities. It might conceivably be that Negro individuals in the future will write ten or a hundred musical compositions for one of equal rank produced by white men. But this would not make a Negro music: it would simply mean that Negro individuals contribute more than do white artists to the development of an art. The art itself is not racial.

Underlying this whole idea of a racial cultural contribution is the tacit assumption of some doctrine of fundamental racial inequality. It assumes the existence of distinctive racial characters that determine or at least profoundly influence the cultural status of groups. It is at one with the familiar Nordic philosophy that finds superior racial traits to explain a dominating world culture. It is somewhat curious to find dogmatic race egalitarians anticipating distinctive Negro contributions to American culture on the basis of racial temperament and talent.

So far as the Negroes to the present time have made any contribution to the American culture that may be said to be in any way characteristic, it has been the result of their culturally isolated life and their peculiar social status. The little body of folk music was of this nature. It bespoke more or less adequately the mental and emotional state of an unlettered, excluded, and oppressed group. It was in no sense a social heritage from the African background, and there is no reason whatsoever for treating it as a biological expression of race.

The possibility of further contribution that may with more or less justification be classed as Negro depends upon the development or perpetuation of racial and cultural exclusion. If the Negroes, because of restrictions imposed by the numerically dominant white group or because of a sentimental solidarity developed from within, become or remain an outcast group there will exist the necessary background for a more or less distinctive body of art and literature expressive of the situation. It will be distinctive because it will be the expression of

(356) a particular social life. It will be Negro only in the sense that the excluded group is composed of Negroes.

A unique culture contribution from the American Negro is not an impossibility, but if it is made it will be made at a tragic cost.


Brawley, Benjamin G., A Social History of the American Negro, New York, 1921.

Brawley, Benjamin G., The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States, New York, 1918 (3rd edition, 1929).

DuBois, William E. B., Darkwater, New York, 1920.

DuBois, William E. B., The Gift of the Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America, Boston, 1924.

Johnson, Charles S., The Negro in American Civilization, New York, 1 930.

Locke, Alain L. (Editor), The New Negro: An Interpretation, New York, 1925. (Contains extensive bibliographies.)

———,    Opportunity: a Journal of Negro Life, 1923. (Contains discussions, articles, etc.)


  1. His maternal great-grandfather was a Negro but whether of full-blood is not known.
  2. "Part Napoleonic soldier, part San Dominican Negro .... ye gods of the drama, what an heredity! . . . he seems to us a savage tale-teller, seated at the campfire, holding his companions breathless, alternately lazy and energetic, sensual and shrewd, he has all the undiluted primitive forces of huge vitality and huge laughter." Burr, The Autobiography, p. 155.
  3. Professor Ellsworth Faris, who lived for ten years in the tribal cultures, remarks: "It is possible to read elaborate characterizations of American Negroes, but no one who has ever lived among the natives of Africa will recognize these characters. The native Africans are independent, dignified, contemptuously tolerant of white people, and have none of the plaintive folkmusic which the slaves in America have made a part of our heritage."

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