Sunday, February 17, 2008

Very Black History (2)

During the Spanish-American-Cuban war, when the official story had it that the U.S. was liberating Cuba from colonial bondage, half-drunk U.S. soldiers waved dollar bills at Cuban women in the streets while a U.S. General announced that Cubans, far too black for Washington's preferences, were "a dying race." According to the optic of official Washington, centuries of mixing "dagos and niggers" had produced a depraved population completely incapable of self-government.

Supposedly an ally of the raggedly dressed Cuban revolutionary army fighting to rid itself of Spanish rule, Washington in fact denied the Cuban revolutionaries the status of official ally and blocked them from participating in the receiving of Spanish surrender in key Cuban cities. U.S. General Samuel B. M. Young, expressing a common view, dismissed the Cuban soldiers as "a lot of degenerates," rating them "no more capable of self-government than the savages of Africa." George M. Barbour, acting as sanitation commissioner of Santiago, chimed in with the view that, "The Cubans are stupid, given to saying and doing all things in the wrong way." He was optimistic, however, that the U.S. would deliver them a bright future. "Under our supervision, the people of Cuba may become a useful race and a credit to the world."

In his annual message to Congress (1899) President McKinley explained that the U.S. had "assumed before the world a grave responsibility for the future good government of Cuba." Sound familiar? This excuse is still being used 109 years later to justify the occupation of Iraq. The Nation magazine, with considerably more realism, commented that the real U.S. objective in Cuba was "to set up a crippled dependency on the United States and call it an independent and sovereign state." That, too, should seem familiar.

In 1895 the Encyclopedia Britannica had invoked scientific authority in defending its claim that "the inherent mental inferiority of blacks" was "an inferiority which is even more marked than their physical differences." Four years later Nathaniel Shaler of Harvard and Edward Cope of the University of Pennsylvania argued that blacks were both physically and mentally retarded. Georgia Professor John Roach Stratton opined that "the negro's tendency to immorality and crime" was irremediable, and that high black rates of lung and venereal disease were proof of "the negro's moral decline."

Contempt for black morals, health, and character was nearly unanimous among whites, who did not question that hatred was a normal racial instinct. In 1907 esteemed Mississippi planter Alfred Holt Stone presented a paper to the American Sociological Society entitled, "Is Race Friction in the United States Growing and Inevitable?" Holt concluded that white blood accounted for what little intelligence blacks possessed and that friction between the races resulted from a "natural contrariety, repugnancy of qualities," which produced a "pressure" in the white man, one felt "almost instinctively in the presence of a mass of people of a different race." American democracy, a product of white intelligence, required "intolerance toward men of another race or color," or else civilization would be doomed by a "mongrelization" like Latin America's. "The superiority of race cannot be preserved without pride of blood and an uncompromising attitude toward the lower races," insisted Stone.

Agreement was widespread among whites that blacks represented an advanced species of racial degradation headed for extinction. At the time the average black man lived just 34 years. Bad food, housing, and sanitation took a fearful toll, encouraging disease to run rampant in sharecropper cabins that had changed little since slavery. Pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid, and diarrhea snuffed out black lives with alarming frequency. An ex-slaveholder pinned the blame on Emancipation: "We delivered the African man over to the nation in 1865 orderly, fairly industrious, without vice, without disease, without crime. In the hands of the nation, he has become disorderly, idle, vicious, diseased."

Henry Loomis Nelson of the Boston Herald explained in 1902 the reigning white man's burden: "Our troops in the Philippines . . . look upon all Filipinos as of one race and condition, and being dark men, they are therefore 'niggers,' and entitled to all the contempt and harsh treatment administered by white overlords to the most inferior races."

The year before, then Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson asserted that non-white peoples were incapable of Anglo-Saxon virtues like self-government because they were still in the "childhood of their political growth." In 1902, as president of Princeton, Wilson said that Filipinos, regularly denounced as "niggers" by U.S. troops, "must obey as those who are in tutelage" and be denied independence until they learned the "discipline of law." Force being the main instrument of the "discipline of law," President Roosevelt informed Congress the same year that "the increasing interdependence and complexity of international political and economic relations render it incumbent on all civilized and orderly powers to insist on the proper policing of the world." TR made it very clear that he expected the "wretched republics" of Central America and the Caribbean, among others, to do what their white masters to the North dictated to them.

Addressing the racial underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy, Columbia's John Burgess, one of the founders of modern American political science, announced that the Old South had won the Civil War at last: "Now that the United States has embarked on imperial enterprises the North is learning every day by valuable experiences that there are vast differences in political capacity between the races, and that it is the white man's mission, his duty . . . to hold the reins of political power in his own hands for the civilization of the world . . . [the] Republican party, in its work of imposing the sovereignty of the United States upon eight millions of Asiatics (in the Philippines) has changed its views in regard to the political relations of races and has at last virtually accepted the ideas of the South upon that subject."

Burgess was a member of the Dunning School of political science, which had a starkly racial outlook. William Dunning earned a reputation as a brilliant doctoral student at Columbia, later returning to his alma mater to become a professor of philosophy. In this position he used his influence to place professors sympathetic to the old Confederacy in history departments all over the country.

Tender in his treatment of white supremacists, Dunning alternated between ridicule, silence, and contempt in his commentary on blacks. He and the many U.S. leaders who admired his work, described the brief upsurge of democracy following the Civil War as the "nadir of national disgrace," a time when newly enfranchised blacks, corrupt whites, and radical Republicans joined hands to humiliate their betters. The presumably uncivilized experiment of Reconstruction allegedly "pandered to the ignorant negroes," establishing corrupt state governments that ushered in bankruptcy, chaos, and destruction. Fortunately, decent white Southerners drove these governments out of power, restoring sanity to the region by means of the Ku Klux Klan.

Dunning's insights trickled down to the troops on the ground in Haiti, who referred to their guerrilla opponents as "bad niggers as we would call them at home." General Smedley Butler, head of the U.S. Occupation forces, characterized the caco leaders as "shaved apes, absolutely no intelligence whatsoever, just plain low nigger." Other occupation authorities described Haitian peasants in the softer stereotyped terms of U.S. race relations: "docile, happy, idle, irresponsible, kindly, shiftless, pleasure-loving, [and] trustworthy."

These attitudes were hardly absent at the highest reaches of power. President Theodore Roosevelt found Haitians "utterly incapable of existing in independence." Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips agreed, explaining that American intervention was necessary because of the "complete incompetence" of the Haitians and the "failure of an inferior people to maintain the degree of civilization left them by the French, or to develop any capacity of self government entitling them to international respect and confidence."

In the presidential election year of 1920, James Weldon Johnson sparked a national discussion of U.S. Haitian policy with a series of articles he wrote for the Nation. Accusing Washington of fomenting racism, brutality, and economic exploitation, Johnson provoked the Wilson Administration to highlight its alleged "benevolent purpose," and the supposed "gratitude" the Haitian people felt in being occupied for five years. Curiously, it also hurried to stress that it intended to withdraw from Haiti soon. (The occupation continued until 1934).

The Wilson Administration's efforts at Haitian moral uplift over the previous five years had included the gunning down of 3000 men, women, and children during pacification and the restoration of virtual slavery on a highway construction program connecting Camp Haitien and Port au Prince. Marine Corps Major Smedley Butler informed then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt that he shouldn't "ask too many questions as to how we accomplish this work." Roosevelt contained whatever curiosity he may have had.

As election day approached, the New York Times reported on U.S. atrocities in Haiti, citing the "noted traveler and authority on the West Indies," Henry A. Franck: "American marines, largely made up of and officered by Southerners, opened fire with machine guns from airplanes upon defenseless Haitian villages, killing men, women, and children in the open market places. . . natives were slain for 'sport' by a hoodlum element among these same Southerners; and . . . . the ancient corvee system of enforced labor was revived and ruthlessly executed . . ."

Fortunately, there were some bright spots in the early years of the 20th century. One of them was the boxer Jack Johnson. Son of a slave, his first organized fights were "Battle Royals" in Galveston, where eight or more blindfolded blacks bashed each other around the ring to the cheers of white men, who tossed them coins like peanuts at the zoo. Johnson quickly excelled at this curious sport of beating people up, well knowing that his alternatives were picking cotton he couldn't sell, plowing lands he couldn't own, and unloading ships he couldn't travel on.

Opportunity struck when white boxers pounding each other into hamburger began to seem, well, uncivilized. Sagging gate receipts suggested the sport was obsolete. But then promoters hit on the idea of an interracial bout, which would provide the fans with an opportunity to witness the physical superiority of white men demonstrated on an uncivilized "coon."

Crushing widespread Nordic supremacist expectations, Johnson was soon thrashing white boxers before jeering racist throngs and celebrating victory in the arms of white women. While the racist fans pinched pennies to survive, Johnson strutted the stage in elegant clothes, flashed his gold teeth, and zoomed around in brightly-colored cars on week-long drunks. He made no apologies for a life of prizefighting, saloons, and prositutes, an existence he preferred to any other. While Booker T. Washington advised blacks to outlast prejudice, and W. E. B. DuBois recommended treading cautiously, heeding the disaster of a misstep, Johnson crashed through racial barriers at break-neck speed, refusing to cede ground as part of a more elaborate maneuver.

Loathed like a "nigger" and paid like a King, Johnson was the quintessential American, doing exactly as he pleased, refusing all limits of background, custom, and race. In the 1910 "Fight of the Century" against the hugely favored Jim Jeffries, he chopped the white boxer's face to pieces amidst a stream of mocking banter: "How do you feel Jim? How do you like it? Does it hurt Jim?"


Noel J. Kent, "America in 1900," (M. E. Sharpe, 2000)

Julius W. Pratt, "A History of United States Foreign Policy," (Prentice Hall, 1955)

Willard B. Gatewood Jr., "Black America and the White Man's Burden," (University of Illinois, 1975)

David F. Schmitz, "Thank God They're On Our Side - The United States and Right Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965," (University of North Carolina, 1999)

Hans Schmidt, "The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934,' (Rutgers, 1995)

Howard Zinn, "A People's History of the United States," (Harper, 1995)

David Levering Lewis, "W. E. B. DuBois - Biography of a Race, 1919-1963," (Holt, 2000)

David Levering Lewis, "W. E. B. DuBois - Biography of a Race, 1868-1919," (Holt, 1998)

Randy Roberts, "Papa Jack - Jack Johnson And The Era of White Hopes," (Free Press, 1983)

Page Smith, "A People's History of the Progressive Era and WWI - America Enters the World," (McGraw-Hill, 1985)

-----Michael K. Smith is the author of "Portraits of Empire" and "The Madness of King George (illustrations by Matt Wuerker," both from Common Courage Press. He can be reached at

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