Hypocrisy and the Effects on Black Identity
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John Quincy Adams, a black man named after the president, was born a slave in Virginia in 1845 (Barnes, ‘The Slave That Reads is the First to Run Away’). Growing up, he was told that he would not always live as a slave, being assured freedom one day by his family that had long suffered at the hands of slavery (Adams 10). As a young boy, he wanted nothing more than to read and write; skills that he was convinced would allow him to feel satisfied, to feel that he would no longer be left out of society due to a gap in understanding, to know and understand as much as the white man, and most importantly, to be made equal to whites (Adams 6).
He understood that his subjugation to slave labor was the source of his ignorance, writing that the white man ‘took my labor to educate their children, and then laughed at me for being ignorant and poor, and had not enough sense to know that they were the cause of it’ (Adams 12). With freedom, however, his troubles were not completely resolved. In his book, When in Slavery, and Now as a Freedman, witten in 1872, Adams speaks out about the hopes, wants, and needs for him and his community as they left behind their subjugation:
We want education; we want protection; we want plenty of work; we want good pay for it, but not any more or less than any one else; we want good trades, such as good mechanics’ trades; we just want a good chance to get them, and then you will see the down-trodden race rise up. I am one of those that is trying to rise up. (Adams 15)
He is essentially arguing for the freedoms that come with liberation, specifically equality. To be black in the era following slavery was to be set apart, denied opportunity for something as basic as education, and above anything, to be subdued by the American hypocrisy that created arbitrary separations between black and white communities. These conditions, this inequality, despite the Emancipation Proclamation (Emancipation Proclamation) and the 13th (US Const. Amend. XII, sec. 3), 14th (US Const. Amend. XIV, sec. 1), and 15th (US Const. Amend. XV, sec. 1) amendments, created a schism in the definition of ‘American,’ a definition that left blacks in America out.
This schism of identity was named as double consciousness by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 in his book, The Souls of Black Folk. The term ‘double consciousness’ was defined by Du Bois as the following: ‘a peculiar sensation…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity….two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’ (Du Bois 2-3). With this definition, Du Bois put a name to one of the quintessential components of black identity in America, a component that Adams’s narrative demonstrates. Du Bois argues that double consciousness arose from a history of conflict that has forced the dichotomy between the identifying as black and American. Keeping this in mind, I will use this paper to argue that before it was named by Du Bois in 1903, double consciousness became more pervasive throughout the African American experience, as documented through the gaps in equality, from 1865 until 1900 with the integration of legal contradictions in the American system, specifically with the Reconstruction amendments.
With the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments, African Americans should have been guaranteed freedom. These amendments, however, did little to enforce equality between blacks and whites and almost nothing to incorporate the condition of being black in the definition of being American. With each legal step taken forward to combat black pessimism between the end of the Civil War and 1900, racist Democrats and indifferent Republicans instituted legal contradictions that fueled the rampant institutional, social, and psychological phenomenon of double consciousness. The failure of Reconstruction, the creation of the black codes, the institutionalization of Jim Crow laws, as well as the preventative measures to prevent black voting, led to only topical change that conceded illusions of freedom to African Americans while giving rise to double consciousness (Kouser 479-480).
The 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States’ (US Const. Amend. XII, sec. 3). This attempt at racial amalgamation was in attempt to solve the general ‘race problem,’ or more specifically, the divisions in American society between whites and blacks following the abolition of slavery (Martin 1015). If slavery were dismantled, freedom recognized, and the lines of a dominant versus an inferior group were blurred, all Americans would simply be Americans, regardless of color. In theory, with the prior distinctions between slaves and masters unrecognized, people would have simply been people. The federal government’s effectiveness to enforce compliance with this national policy, however, fell short (James 205) in the hands of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its power to supervise labor contracts (Shlomowitz 558). Congress had anticipated that the Freedmen’s Bureau would have encouraged the advancement of newly freed blacks in America, however, with contract-labor systems of employment, the line between slavery and free employment became compromised with the institution of sharecropping.
Sharecropping, and the similar institution of tenant farming, is a system where a landlord/planter allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop (‘Sharecropping’ 00:07-02:03). Throughout the South following the Civil War, many blacks rented land, equipment, fertilizer, or other items on credit from whites until the harvest season. At that time, the tenant and landlord would settle their debts, figuring out who owed whom and how much. Despite this fair-sounding system, factors like high interest rates or unpredictable harvests could keep families severely indebted, requiring the debt to be carried over until it was paid off. Laws favored landowners, making it difficult or illegal for sharecroppers to sell their crops to anyone but their landlord, or prevented sharecroppers from moving if they were indebted to their landlord (‘Sharecropping’ 00:07-02:03). With these legal limitations placed upon African Americans, their newly freed status was devalued as it had been during slavery (Allen 219) and consequently, the idea of their American inclusion. The suggestion that blacks had been embraced into the American collective, that they could be freely working Americans while being black, was shattered with this contradiction to the hope they’d been given with the 13th Amendment.
William Gordon, a black man who worked in a sharecropping family, highlighted the separation between races: ‘You didn’t talk back, you never talked back to… No blacks could ever talk back to whites. When a white person said something that was it and you’d just say, ‘well, sir, what do you want me to do?’, or something like that and go ahead then you’d mind your own business’ (Gordon 1991). Gordon’s testimony reveals that blacks, despite the freedom they thought they’d been given, were experiencing the double consciousness. There was no equality, only a perpetuation of the racial subordination constructed during the slave era. Slavery had been replaced by an eerily similar counterpart and with racial etiquette and vocational subordination and inequality perpetuated with this system, double consciousness began in its first steps to a pervasive manifestation.
Despite this setback, attempts for equality and inclusion among the American people continued. On July 28, 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified, granting citizenship to ‘all persons born or naturalized in the United States,’ (US Const. Amend. XIV, sec. 1); a criterion that included former slaves who had been freed. Yet, what was left ambiguous was exactly what citizenship entailed for those newly freed men. Was citizenship the freedom to travel, the ability to mingle with whomever one pleased, the right to bear arms, or the opportunity to serve on juries? If so, African Americans were not citizens. Black codes, or laws enacted in the states of the former Confederacy, limited all of those freedoms and more, intending to: assure the domination of white supremacy, replace the social controls, and continue instilling inferiority in freed slaves, which ultimately bolstered double consciousness (‘Black codes’). With laws in place to restrict basic freedoms, blacks were again reminded of their identity: black and not American. Modjeska Simkins, a black woman during the time, described it as though freedom was being revoked, suggesting white Southerners ‘took back the government and then they put in all these laws and that created this particular thing that we have had to fight all these hundred years’ (Simkins). These codes, although disbanded after Reconstruction, left a legacy of blatant disregard for African American citizenship, something that continued into the creation of Jim Crow laws following their demise.
In addition to citizenship, the 14th Amendment promised ‘the equal protection of the laws’ (US Const. Amend. XIV, sec. 1), asserting that not only would blacks and whites be equal in citizenship, but equal in the protections that came with. Had this been true, American and African American identity would be homogenous. Instead, with the disequilibrium in enforcement and the attitudes of whites, blacks were shown their inferior place in America and reminded that their race not only came first in their identity but also that it destroyed the chance to be truly American. This attitude, regarding rights and inferior social status of African Americans reflected in the black codes and subsequent Jim Crow laws, was sanctioned by the federal government in the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson (U.S. Supreme Court, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896). This case upheld the constitutionality of racial inequality and the ideas of ‘separate but equal,’ despite separate being inherently unequal, that reminded African Americans once more of the qualifiers between race and identity in America.
This duality, this separation, fed the vicious beast of racism and consequently, double consciousness. Powerful episodes of Jim Crow and its effects permeate the black existence in America, even still today, creating an existence founded on difference:
It was ‘colored’ back then, on one side and ‘white’ on the other, and we had our place on the bus, we had our water fountains for coloreds and our bathrooms for coloreds, and we figured that’s just the way it’s supposed to be until later when integration did come about, and we came into the knowledge that it’s not supposed to be that way, everybody’s supposed to be equal-but being white, white thought ‘white meant right’ and back then white was superior, and we just assumed that’s the way it’s supposed to be. (Florence)
White meant right because of the legal institution that gave white supremacy the means to manifest into a dominating and defining social force. But, if white meant right, what did black mean if not wrong? If one group is good, is its opposite not bad? This dilemma, the delineation that came from the American legal system, is the foundation of double consciousness, coming to light and prevalence through not only Jim Crow but also the sharecropping system that had set the stage for legal hypocrisy. We see that, despite the 14th Amendment’s promise of citizenship, the empowerment of the Jim Crow era led to contrasts between races and the unconquerable obstacle of double consciousness.
The last of the Reconstruction Amendments was supposed to give an undeniable right to anyone who considers him or herself an American: the vote – a symbol of importance/influence of the individual in democracy. The 15th Amendment guarantees: ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude’ (US Const. Amend. XV, sec. 1). Unfortunately, as the pattern continues, this was also contradicted with the institution of voter suppression carried out by things like poll taxes, literacy tests, the Grandfather clause, violent groups like the KKK, and even lynching. All of these methods were mobilized to disenfranchise the African American, stripping him of a right that comes with being American to make the claim, yet again, that blacks could not be both black and American. One’s vote signified one’s place in society as an American and political contribution in the American democratic system has historically been the anchor of American identity. To strip that enfranchisement away is to strip American citizenship, which is exactly what whites wanted. One African American Georgia man put it simply, ‘[I’ve] never been able to exercise my right as a citizen because of the poll tax… I can’t pay a poll tax, can’t have a voice in my own government’ (Trout 24).
What may be more painful for African Americans in this time, rather than the outright rejection of constitutional freedoms, was the illusion of achievement that had seduced them. For example, during the Reconstruction Era in South Carolina, blacks comprised the majority of the state’s legislature and over 2000 blacks held some type of public office throughout the United States (Sreenivasan, ‘Poverty and the Government in America’). This change in southern politics, however, created a hostile environment in the former Confederacy as whites were threatened by blacks’ new freedom and expression (Price et al. 167-193; Cook 2017). Violence from the KKK in the form of beatings, burnings, and lynching was used to prevent blacks from exercising their new freedom to vote (DeFina and Hannon 165-181). During the Presidential campaign season of 1868, KKK members threatened blacks that if they did not vote for the Democratic ticket, they would be lynched (Dickerson, ‘The Reconstruction Era’). In 1868, the KKK killed more than 2,000 blacks in Louisiana, two South Carolina legislators, and the President of the Urban League, causing black voter turnout to be reduced by 20 percent between the 1867 and the 1868 election (Dickerson, ‘The Reconstruction Era’).
These KKK terrorists’ acts helped the south regain Democratic control in the statehouse in 1870 and helped reinforce the idea that blacks were not, in fact, American citizens (Dickerson, ‘The Reconstruction Era’).
In addition to violent threats and reminders regarding the African American place, there were laws put in place to disenfranchise blacks. In 1890, Mississippi held a convention to write a new state constitution and the white leaders were clear about their intentions: ‘We came here to exclude the Negro’ (Calhoon qtd in McMillen, ‘Isaiah T. Montgomery’). With the context of the 15th Amendment, legally, blacks could not be banned from voting, however, they could be restricted from it. The most pervasive of these methods were the poll tax, which targeted the poorest of the state’s population, and the literacy tests, which excluded the 60% of black men who could not read (McMillen, ‘Isaiah T. Montgomery’). These tools were the systematic dehumanization of African Americans in the South. These barriers were not only barriers to American democracy, but to unified American identity. There would be no black who could be considered an American without the right to vote, and whites not only recognized this but also empowered it.
Blacks throughout America knew they were being excluded as citizens, which fortified double consciousness. To be American meant: to be free, which they were not; to be citizens, which they weren’t; and to vote, which they were prohibited from.
To be American, then, meant to be white. African Americans recognized the inequality in treatment, which signified the exclusion from the American identity, but still wanted equality. Booker T. Washington even pleaded for the southern states, ‘the adoption of an intelligent standard of citizenship that will equally apply to black and white alike’ (Washington 37). Washington’s consciousness raising of the African American community was the first step towards change. In being able to recognize the dichotomy that existed between blacks and whites in the American social system, he took the first step toward making black citizens African American, not African or American. The African American population in this era was let down by the failures of the American government. Reconstruction, while a failure for many things, was also a disgrace to the integration of blacks in America.
These institutions that belittled the Reconstruction Amendments made a mockery of freedom, not just for those supposedly receiving it but also for those who were granting it. It would have been of equal efficiency to perpetuate an openly discriminatory, prejudiced, and racist society as it was to subvert freedom and silently support white superiority in the name of the law. The subversion of justice enacted by the United States government both empowered white racists and diminished the black experience and identity to something that was merely ‘wrong,’ leading to what Du Bois eventually identified as the double consciousness. Black identity throughout the country was forced to compete against white identity with the legal contradictions arising from the Reconstruction Amendments, causing warring ideals. From 1865 until 1900, with the integration of legal contradictions that diminished the illusions of advancement that came with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, that the African American identity did not exist; only the black and white identity line. It is obvious, from the information present in this paper, how the double consciousness came into existence and flourished with this outstanding platform of legal hypocrisy.