Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/August 1888/The Future of the Negro


IT is difficult for men who study history to read the discussion now raging on the progress of Islam in Africa without recurring to the old question—which so greatly interested the last generation, and is now so seldom started—the question of what the negro is really like. There are not many left among us, we imagine, though there are some here and there, who doubt whether he is a man at all; but the conflict of opinion about him is of the most extreme kind, so extreme as to be almost unintelligible. One set of observers, with whom Captain Burton, as we understand his writings, agrees in the main, hold that he is a nearly irreclaimable savage, a being who can not be ruled except by terror, and who is by nature incapable of rising to the level attained by the white, and even in many respects by the yellow and the brownish man. They think his savagery instinctive, his laziness incurable, and his sensuality far in excess of anything observable in Europe. They declare Africa an accursed continent chiefly because of the negro, and welcome frightful narratives, like Mr. St. John's account of Hayti, as demonstrating past all question the accuracy of their theory. Other observers, again, including many missionaries and some explorers, are friendly to the negro, think that the repulsion caused by his external aspect makes ordinary men unjust to him, and declare that he is, when not oppressed, essentially a docile creature indisposed to vindictiveness, and, though not clever, fairly ready to receive instruction, which, they further add, may occasionally be carried up to any point attainable by the white man. Such observers, among whom we should class keen-eyed Mrs. Trollope, who had rare opportunities of studying the race, and keener-eyed Mrs. Stowe, think the Uncle Tom kind of negro not rare, and evidently hold that when bad, he is vicious as a European may be, rather than innately savage. A third class maintain that the negro, if carefully observed, is found to be exactly like everybody else, with the same passions, the same aspirations, and the same powers, with one most remarkable exception. He can not rise in the scale beyond a certain point. The originating power of the European and the imitating power of the modern Asiatic are not in him, or not in the same degree; and he remains under all circumstances more or less of a child, bad or good like other children, but never quite a man. It is added by this class, and in part by the one mentioned before it, that the negro woman is, on the whole, better than the negro man, with more industry, more fidelity, and decidedly more capacity for the gentler virtues. The third opinion is, so far as we know, that of the majority of missionaries, of most residents in the West Indies not being employers of labor, and of all Americans, and they have been many, to whom we have opened the subject. Americans seem to us, as a rule, to think most kindly of the negro, to be entirely free from fear of him, to be annoyed with oppression practiced on him, but to be quite hopeless about his future. He will not advance, they think, and would recede but for the white man.

History certainly bears these Americans out. Throughout its whole course, in the Old World as in the modern one, under the most extreme variety of circumstances, no negro of the full blood has ever risen to first-class eminence among mankind. Not only has there been no negro philosopher, or inventor, or artist, or builder; but there has been no negro conqueror, nor, unless we class Said, Mohammed's slave, as one, and Toussaint l'Ouverture as another, any negro general above the rank of a guerrilla chief. There seems to be no reason for this except race. People talk of the seclusion of the negro: but he has always been in contact on the Nile with the Egyptian, or the Greek, or the Roman, in South America with the Spaniard, and in North America with the English-speaking Teuton, and he has learned very little. It is objected that he has been always a slave; but so was everybody else in the Roman period, most modern Italians, for example, being, the descendants of the white slaves of the Roman gentry. Moreover, why does the negro put up with that position, when the Chinaman, and the red Indian, and even the native of India will not? It is said that he has been buried in the most "massive" of the four continents, and has been, so to speak, lost to humanity; but he was always on the Nile, the immediate road to the Mediterranean, and in West and East Africa he was on the sea. Africa is probably more fertile, and almost certainly richer, than Asia, and is pierced by rivers as mighty, and some of them at least as navigable. What could a singularly healthy race, armed with a constitution which resists the sun and defies malaria, wish for better than to be seated on the Nile, or the Congo, or the Niger, in numbers amply sufficient to execute any needed work, from the cutting of forests and the making of roads up to the building of cities? How was the negro more secluded than the Peruvian; or why was he "shut up" worse than the Tartar of Samarcand, who one day shook himself, gave up all tribal feuds, and from the sea of Okhotsk to the Baltic, and southward to the Nerbudda, mastered the world? One Tartar family was reigning at one time over China, Tartary, India, and Russia. Why has the negro, who is brave as man may be, alone of mankind never emerged from his jungles, and subdued neighboring races? Why has he never invented a creed of the slightest spiritual or moral merit, never, in fact, risen above fetichism? Above all, why has he remained in Africa, for three thousand years at least, without forming empires or building stone cities, or employing a common medium of intercommunication? Mr. Blyden says lie has formed cities full of busy life and commerce; but have they ever been better than encampments, and why have they not lasted? We who write certainly do not believe in the incurable incapacity of the race, for we know of Bishop Crowther and Mr. Blyden, and have talked with negroes apparently as thoughtful and as well instructed as any Europeans; but we confess that the history of the race remains to us an insoluble puzzle, except upon the theory that there are breeds of mankind in whom that strangest of all phenomena, the arrestment of development, occurs at a very early stage. The negro went by himself far beyond the Australian savage. He learned the uses of fire, the fact that sown grain will grow, the value of shelter, the use of the bow and the canoe, and the good of clothes; but there to all appearance he stopped, unable, until stimulated by another race like the Arab, to advance a step. He did not die, like the Australian. He did not sink, like one or two varieties of the red Indian, and of the aborigines of South Africa, into a puny being hardly like a man; but he stopped at a point as if arrested by a divine will. There is not a shadow of proof that the negro described by Werne differs in any way from the negro of the time of Sesostris. It is not quite certain even that the race, when started again, would, as a race, go on improving. The Haytians, who are Christians, who are free, and who are in the fullest contact with great white races, are believed to be retrograding; and only the hopeful would believe in the future of American slaves, if they were to be expelled, as De Tocqueville thought they would ultimately be, to the islands, or, as is infinitely more probable, should the war of races ever break out, to Central America.

As far as we see, nothing really improves the negro except one of two causes—cross-breeding, and catching hold of some foreign but superior creed. The cross-breeds of the Soudan and of South Africa seem to have some fine qualities—matchless courage, for example—and under a strict but vivifying white rule might, we fancy, be brought in a century or two up to the Asiatic level. They produce generals, at all events, and chiefs with some tincture of statesmanship, and have poetry and a folk-lore of their own. Those negroes, again, who have embraced Islam do show a certain manliness, a capacity for aggregation, and a tendency, at all events, to form kingdoms, and organize armies, and obey laws, which are the first steps toward a higher civilization. It is not a high civilization, for, when all is said, a Mohammedan negro is not an ideal of humanity toward which Europeans can look with any feeling of enthusiasm; but still, it is higher, far higher, than the condition of the African pagan. The negro who embraces Christianity, again, while he remains in contact with the white man distinctly advances, "Uncle Tom" is an abnormal specimen, it may be, and we are not inclined to place the moral condition of the negroes of the Southern States very high; but still, they have displayed a perfectly wonderful absence of vindictiveness toward the former slave-owners, obey the ordinary laws with fair regularity, and keep themselves above starvation by the labor of their own hands. The best of them, moreover, rise far beyond this point, the South containing both doctors and lawyers who, by the admission of the whites, are thoroughly competent men; and it may be said of the whole body that, though not equal to any European community of the same extent, they are far superior to any four millions of pagan negroes who could be selected in Africa. As they can not owe this rise in the scale to slavery, which at the best could only drill the negroes to industry, and at the worst must beget a permanent distaste for labor, the change must be owing to Christianity, plus the operation of laws based upon that faith. It follows that the largest group of negroes under civilized observation, the descendants, as is believed, of four widely distinguished tribes, have been raised in the scale of humanity by embracing a rude form of the Christian faith. The total conclusion, therefore, as yet justified by evidence, is that intermarriage, especially with the Arab, improves the negro tribes, that they gain in manliness by embracing Islam, and that they gain in the social virtues by embracing Christianity, the latter to a degree measured by the depth and earnestness of their faith. At home, when unconquered and unconverted, they do not advance, and the point still doubtful is whether, when left to themselves, they will not, even when converted, again recede or stop. The Abyssinians, who are Semites, have been Christians for ages. The conclusion is not very satisfactory; but it is certain that races of imperfect powers exist—e. g., the Australian aborigines—and that Providence does, for unknown purposes, occasionally waste even fine races—e. g., the Maoris—who will, to all appearance, die out, having fulfilled no function at all, not even that of preparing the way for the ultimate occupants of their country.—Spectator.

A curious economical study is afforded by the four groups of the Scilly Islands 'and Orkneys—which are as a rule prosperous—and the Western Hebrides and Shetland Islands—which are miserable—under similar outward conditions and surroundings. Those conditions and the rule of race failing to account for the difference, Mr. T. H. Farrer suggests that the explanation may be found in the fact that in Scilly and Orkney the industries by which men live "have become separated, specialized, and perfected, each practiced and developed by separate classes as a separate pursuit," while in the Hebrides and the Shetlands the crofter has to be at the same time a kind of Jack at all trades.