On Judging the Dead
Curtis J. Evans
Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity
University of Chicago
I thank Art Remillard and the editors of JSR for the opportunity to clarify some comments that I made in my response to David Sehat's original article in the JSH and his response to my comments. Let me first note some substantive or historical issues of disagreement between us before I get to his overarching arguments about judging or blaming historical actors. Sehat says that we agree that Booker T. Washington "directed his critique not so much at black people themselves as at the wealthy white benefactors before whom he spent so much of his time asking for money." That is not my position. I do believe that Washington had philanthropists and donors as a major object of his public talks, but I also believe that he directed many of his criticisms at black southerners, especially their religious practices. Let me develop this point.
Washington gave the annual address for the Women's Convention and the National Baptist Convention from 1902 until his death in 1915.(1) In his address in Philadelphia in September 18, 1903, he reiterated themes that were integral to his industrial philosophy and his particular conception of the role of black religion. Washington was especially pleased to be able to address the largest African American denomination in the country because of its unique position in holding the future of the Negro race in its hands. He argued that the "responsibility resting upon the Negro minister is a peculiar one. He has to perform many duties that the white minister is not called upon to perform." Therefore, a black minister had a greater duty to help uplift the race by providing to the black masses "instruction in matters of education, industry and business." More practically, in the heightened racial climate of the South, black ministers for Washington had been indispensable in inculcating in blacks patience and forbearance, thus forestalling or preventing much bloodshed and potential race riots.(2)
Although we may be tempted to regard Washington's comments about the importance of black ministers as a calculated instance of paying due deference to his audience and an attempt to enlist this large organization in his quest for industrial education (and there is much to be said for this position), he was not alone among black leaders in his claim that black churches had a broader range of duties and responsibilities than white churches because of the unique history of blacks in America. Washington was also not alone in his lifting up black ministers as having peculiar duties to uplift the race, though his emphasis on great men in history and his tendency toward hero worship no doubt were just as important in understanding this attention to ministers. Whatever we may think about Washington's relationship with northern philanthropists and his role as an "indigenous collaborator," we must not pay such heed to structural constraints and a system of domination that we lose sight of the complexity of the individual with whom we are dealing. Clearly, Washington was speaking directly to black people when he castigated the morals of their ministers, and closer attention, in my view, to his personality and his particular view of exemplary figures sheds additional light on why he criticized black religion more generally in the way that he did.
Louis Harlan argues that Washington greatly admired the success symbolized by great wealth, so much so that he calls Washington a "materialist." It is clear that Washington held businessmen up as exemplary figures and spoke their language.(3) His valorization of the great man in history and his high estimation of business go a long way in explaining the precise way in which he approached black religion. Washington's consistent criticism of black religion was that it did not have a definite connection to blacks' social and moral life. He felt that the religion of African Americans was doing little to infuse them with a "missionary spirit" to get land, build homes, and to "attain a higher level of living."(4) In one of his earliest public comments about black religion before northern audiences (though not intended for the general public), Washington argued that blacks lacked a "practical Christianity."(5) His repetitive darky stories about black field hands allegedly avoiding work by following a perceived call from God indicates that he had little regard for mystery or non-instrumental aspects of religion. Washington's thoroughly instrumentalist conception of religion was inextricably linked to his vision of blacks attaining manhood and the respect of whites by building up a formidable economic base that demanded attention. In one of his most succinct conceptions of the function of religion, he stated in 1912 before the noted Men and Religion Forward Movement that "nothing pays so well in producing efficient labor as Christianity."(6) In his estimation, black religion as it was practiced in his day fell short of this goal of producing efficient laborers, though he was willing to grant an exception to the leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).
It may seem that I am not saying any more than Sehat, that Washington's civilizing mission for blacks was predicated on the acquisition of certain economic characteristics and qualities that would prepare them for political representation and full citizenship. After all, so convinced was he of his industrial program that Washington once exclaimed (in the journal of the AME church): "If the acquisition of property, education, morality, refinement and religion do not, in God's own time, bring us every political and civil right, then Nature is false, God is false, the teachings of Christ are false, everything is false."(7) Or perhaps this was a case of doubt creeping in, questioning even his instrumentalist conception of religion. Whatever the case, I fear that by linking Washington to a program of liberalism and northern philanthropists, we risk losing sight of the man and his limited agency within this admittedly rigid system of domination and oppression. I do not accuse Sehat of this, as I have expressed my highest appreciation for his work, but I do not think, as Sehat does, that attention to tensions within an abstract system of liberalism can adequately elucidate the source of the differences between W. E. B. Du Bois and Washington and move us beyond the sterile debate of accommodationism versus resistance (and much less give us the best explanation for the persistence of racism). Subsuming this important figure, though powerfully constrained in many ways, to a niche within a strain of liberalism makes very much possible even more discussion and reiteration of the old accommodation versus resistance paradigm, even if it may seem to move us away from questions about blame and agency.
This leads me to Sehat's critique of those who blame moral agents in the past for their actions. I appreciate his wrestling with such an important issue. Let me state clearly that I did not suggest that Washington is to be blamed for the "triumph of white supremacy" (a phrase that Sehat inserts to finish my sentence). Perhaps "blame" is an infelicitous and unhelpful word, but the point I was trying to make is that we should not avoid examining or at least we should not minimize Washington's style of leadership or his personality in our attempt to focus on the broader structural constraints under which he labored. I cannot see how we can avoid discussing choices people make and what options they have in historical moments, unless we believe they are deterministically acted upon by impersonal forces of history. The basic argument that I made was that Washington specifically and shrewdly criticized black religion because it did not comport with his model of industrial education and that black ministers in much of the rural South stood outside the pale of his strong vision of business exemplars uplifting the race. Should we not acknowledge his tactical moves, limited and qualified as they may have been in terms of his overall plans for black economic success?
Yet, even with due attention to structural constraints, Washington had limited but real choices in his situation. For example, he did not use his darky stories, as far as I can tell, during his annual address before the National Baptist Convention. He tirelessly reiterated them before northern white audiences.(8) Activist Ida B. Wells and other black leaders criticized black ministers as did Washington, but they felt that he had violated rules of propriety in mentioning the worst abuses of ministerial authority (as if they were the norm) and parodying black life before white audiences. Washington's dispute with Du Bois had many sources, but surely his emphasis on business and economic success was part of the disagreement. Not without reason did Du Bois criticize him for preaching a Gospel of Mammon. The issue is not, as Sehat intimates, whether Washington and his contemporaries "really believed" what they said and preached, but how to explain their words and actions and what to make of them. But even more, seeking understanding and explanation is not some static place in which we rest and then congratulate ourselves on our deep knowledge of the past. I have no interest in merely "understanding" segregation solely as a moral system that we have now discarded. What ultimately then are we after? What ends do we have in view if not mere understanding? Is not one of those to put knowledge and understanding to some use in order to prevent the worst abuses of the past from persisting or reemerging? In respect to our position or relation to the historical subjects we study, I do not know how we can avoid some ascription of responsibility. As Thomas Haskell argues, there is "no premium for standing in the middle of the road," but instead we recognize that "scholars are as passionate about and as likely to be driven by interests as those they write about."(9) So this notion of the Olympian scholar standing apart from mere mortals who judge historical subjects strikes me as odd.
Obviously, we ourselves are constrained by certain formal rules of our disciplines, professions, and social settings. We cannot say whatever we want about our historical subjects. We seek fair mindedness and some degree of objectivity, however complicated that word has become. In my view, however, we show more respect to our historical subjects if we do attempt to understand what choices and options they had rather than using them as mere pawns or acted-upon-objects to illuminate a wider social background. Surely we have learned enough from the totalizing discourses of the past not to repeat those errors where real human beings become mere expedients in the name of universal reason, historical materialism, Enlightenment or some other grand historical narrative. This hard embrace of historicism worries me to the extent that it can end up unwittingly exonerating historical actors no matter what their moral choices by avoiding issues of culpability and responsibility and forever delaying any discussion of historical contingency, moral agency, and human action in a particular social setting. Understanding and explanation, as we know from divisive issues in our contemporary world, do not extricate us from questions of morality and making assessments about the proper courses of action based on the best knowledge that we have and the moral convictions to which we ascribe. Even the shape of our narratives and the way we tell stories about the past are deeply informed by our moral perspectives and our contemporary judgments, whether we explicitly state these or not.
Let me return to the question of blame. Sehat states, "I am afraid that if we pause to blame Washington without considering the wider system in which he worked, we may not address the wider context at all." Here again the word "blame" bears a heavy load and I have no vested interest in it. However, I am not sure historians work in the way that Sehat implies in this sentence. When I began my work on Washington, I had no fixed ideas about him, except that I was aware that in the classic Washington and Du Bois debate over the future of black progress, most scholars tended to admire Du Bois, whether they stated this explicitly or not. I set out to understand why Washington was so hostile to black religion and why he focused on it so much when he spoke before white audiences. I had and have no interest in blaming Washington for the rise of white supremacy, though I do believe that he provided, whether wittingly or unwittingly, ideological support for segregation and mirrored the broader northern Protestant discourse that black religious emotionalism made blacks unfit for the franchise.
Even if we "blame" or, perhaps more accurately, attribute limited agency or responsibility to historical subjects, it is not clear to me that this should cause us to pause in our analysis. Who can pause when faced with a complex figure like Washington? If anything, we are pushed forward to dig deeper precisely because he does not quite fit into our contemporary conceptual schemes. Any careful historian would hardly fail to seek an understanding of the broader context in which Washington operated. For all his attention to the private and public contradictions in Washington's life, Louis Harlan's magisterial biography of Washington is filled with a rich discussion of the wider social context of his time and place. Why must this be an either/or analysis of Washington's person or the wider social context? Even after rereading Sehat's original essay and his response to my post, I am unclear as to who he has in mind. Who assumes that Washington's contemporaries acted in bad faith? Who claims that the intellectual, moral and religious foundations of white supremacy and segregation were merely masks for something else? In my book, Burden of Black Religion (2008), I dealt with arguments about black people that were deeply disturbing and that I find morally repugnant. But I was not interested in pausing and simply attributing blame to individual persons, though I do examine the actions and ideas of individual persons who contributed to this discussion. What I sought was a deeper understanding of the ideological justification for violence against blacks and their disenfranchisement and why black religion in particular was so demonized by particular persons in various settings. It is precisely because I found much of this material so morally troubling and so unlike anything that I have known in my personal experience that I had to wrestle with questions about when to stop my analysis. At what point would I feel that I had an adequate explanation of this deeply troubling past? I did not wish simply to catalogue racism, but to acquire a deeper understanding, which is why I was never quite sure what that entailed as I continued probing this history.
Although Sehat's concluding comments make me feel as if I have been caught up in a debate that I did not start and that I am not really the object of his criticisms, let me reiterate that I have great admiration for his essay. It is a rich work that deserves careful reading and it illuminates Washington's civilizing mission and his views of black religion in a way that has not been done before. Perhaps our miscommunication has to do with the fact that we work in different disciplines and so I cannot always be sure that Sehat is really directing the final few paragraphs of his rejoinder to my response to his original article. Even so, I thought it necessary to set the record straight regarding my own views of Washington and why I think he engaged in such a thoroughgoing critique of black religion.
1. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 159.
2. "Extracts from an Address before the National Baptist Convention," September 18, 1903, in Louis R. Harlan, The Booker T Washington Papers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), VII, 287-289.
3. Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 128-129.
4. "The Religious Life of the Negro," July 1905, in Louis R. Harlan and Raymond W. Smock, eds., The Booker T. Washington Papers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), VIII, 335.
5. "Speech Delivered Before the Women's New England Club," Jan. 27, 1889 in Louis R. Harlan, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), III, 27. This extensive and negative characterization of religion among southern blacks before a northern audience complicates Harlan's claim that Washington's harsh criticism of black ministers the following year was anomalous. His 1890 critique of black religion was consistent with his imbibing Samuel Chapman Armstong's industrial philosophy that alleged immorality and emotionalism as major defects of black religion. Even so, Washington's powerful speech against black ministers indicated that he was coming into his own as a critic to spur blacks to racial uplift. See Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 194-197. On Armstrong, see James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 53-73; and Robert Francis Engs, Educating the Disfranchised and Disinherited: Samuel Chapman Armstrong and Hampton Institute, 1839-1893 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999).
6."Extracts of an Address before the Men and Religion Forward Movement," April 21, 1912 in Louis R. Harlan and Raymond W. Smock, eds., Booker T. Washington Papers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), XI, 527.
7."Taking Advantage of Our Disadvantages," April 1894, in Washington Papers, III, 411-412.
8. For Wells' critique of black ministers, see Patricia A. Schechter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett & American Reform, 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 64-65; and Alfreda M. Duster, ed., Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 41.
9.Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore and London: University of John Hopkins Press, 1998), 150.