As I was browsing through the prints and photographs archives of the Library of Congress, I come across an interesting primary source– “The Negro Element in American Life”, a published oration by Abraham Lincoln DeMond (1867-1936).
Demond, a minister and advocate for African-American emancipation in the late 10th to early 20th century, published his speech at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on January 1st, 1900 and published it as “The Negro Element in American Life”. In the oration, he eloquently points out and argues for the contributions and achievements of black folks to the United States since before the country was even formed. His speech pushes back against forces and trends that challenges the validity and worthiness of black Americans as “authentic” American, urging people of his time to see the contributions and achievements of black Americans towards the founding and prosperity of the country as well as being full embodiments of American values and aspirations.
In the past week on Henry Krehbiel and Pullen Jackson’s readings, our class explored some of the arguments for and against whether people should consider black spirituals, folk songs and plantation music as “original” and as “American”. Krehbiel believed and tried to prove that black music is spontaneous, native and original by both locality as well as musical characteristic, although Jackson pushes back on this idea by contributing most “origins” of black music and tunes towards European roots.
“If the songs which came from the plantations of the South are to conform to the scientific definitions of folksongs as I laid it down in the preceding chapter, they must be “born, not made”; they must be spontaneous utterances of the people who originally sang them; they must also be the fruit of the creative capacity of a whole and ingenuous people, not of individual artists, and give voice to the joys, sorrows and aspirations of that people”Henry Krehbiel, Songs of the American Slaves (1914), P.22
These discussions around identity, race and nationalism are so intertwining that we simply cannot talk about one without the other. Complementary to Krehbiel’s arguments, DeMond calls for people to consider black folks in America as Americans who belong on this land and carry this “American” identity just like all their white European counterparts in the country both by locality and by merit.
However, the positionality of DeMond narrative as a white pastor inevitably whitewashed the experience, merits and achievements of the African Americans on this land which is the foundation of his arguments. For instance, he pictured black folks as the silent, obedient and hardworking contributors of the prosperity of the United States, and that the statue of liberty was the hard labour of black Americans doing the job for the wage that white American workers declined. By doing so, he presented an almost romanticized idea of African Americans on this land as what Jackson has briefly mentioned in his writing.
The privileged subjectivity from a white man’s perspective is both a path for change and call-for-actions as well as a subject to be criticized from romanticized notion of race and identity in the United States.
Demond, A. L, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Emancipation Proclamation Association, and Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection. The Negro element in American life. Montgomery, Ala.: Alabama Printing Company, 1900. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/91898121/.
Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962).