Black girls and representative citizenship

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3 Scopus citations


Conduct books written by black activists at the beginning of the twentieth century advocated a race that was cultured, malleable, law abiding, and religious. These texts were produced as black populations were migrating from southern states to northern and western cities during the Great Migration. Because this movement changed the geography of race relations through a collision of classes, manners, dialects, and lifestyles that resulted in unease among the black elite, conduct books offered specific behavioral protocols to manage and reconstruct racial representation. The conduct books were written to protect African Americans against violence caused by poor race relations. During the post-Reconstruction era, a period lasting from 1877 to World War I, which the historian Rayford Logan labels the nadir, or the lowest point, in American race relations, African Americans were concerned about the constraints placed on their political rights.1 Restrictions on voter registration and voting methods, such as poll taxes, literacy and residency requirements, and ballot box changes, disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. Violence in the form of rape and lynching of African Americans intensified race relations. The mass public cation of white supremacist literature, such as Thomas Dixon's illustrated novel, The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burdens, 1865-1900 (1902), and its sequel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), contributed to harmful racist ideologies by presenting untruths of rampant black criminality. In response to the violence of the period, black activists encouraged a view that proper conduct, harmonious courtship, and marital relationships could gain blacks access to the social and political events from which they were largely excluded.2 To promote these Victorian ideals, black activists published instructional manuals that taught readers how to adopt genteel characteristics representative of the cultured, well-mannered "New Negro." As Henry Louis Gates Jr. observes, "the image of the New Negro . . . served various generations of black intellectuals as a sign of plenitude, of regeneration, of a truly reconstructed presence." He argues that this "New Negro" was generated between 1895 and 1925 to counter the image in the popular imagination of the black person as devoid of all characteristics that separate the lower forms of human life from the supposedly higher forms. To promote this representative subject, black intellectuals wrote prescriptive instructional manuals with exemplary characters who modeled moral integrity and behavioral codes that whites would recognize as embodiments of bourgeois manners.3 The behavior of black girls was an important topic in conduct rhetoric at the turn of the century. The rhetoric assumed a patriarchal agenda in which black girl figures acquired education and learned to care for others. Rather than use their education to prepare for upli work in the public sphere, black girls were to defer to male leadership and return to the domestic sphere. They were to follow rules of "duty" and "beauty" that prepared them for their future roles as wife and mother. One popular instructional manual, Floyd's Flowers, or Duty and Beauty for Colored Children, offers a good example of the language, iconography, and coded messages of decorum that surrounded the black girl figure as a citizenship model. Written by the educator and activist Silas X. Floyd and illustrated by the artist and educator John Henry Adams, this conduct book was first published in 1905 and republished in 1925 as Charming Stories for Young and Old.4 Floyd's Flowers, a breakthrough for its time, was widely read at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its compilation of one hundred short stories provided black parents with advice on how to raise their children as morally correct citizens and productive members of society. Using girls and boys as protagonists, Floyd prepared readers to face prejudice at an early age and taught protocols on racial etiquette and lessons on moral refinement. Although Adams's illustrations now seem pedestrian, with simple drawing and shading, their messages resonated deeply with racial awareness, economic inequality, and a collective sense of well-being. In later editions photographs replaced sketches. The human subjects in these photographs refuted caricatured images and thus completed the cultural work that Floyd's text could not achieve on its own. Thus, as Katharine Capshaw Smith writes, the image of the black child became emblematic of racial tensions of the period. In turn, then, the black girl in Floyd's Flowers became a representative feminine figure fully aware of the racial climate at the nadir. Analyzing this little-known literature adds to the conversation of canonical texts of this period that we read for messages about racial performance. We no longer have to lean as heavily on novels like Wallace Thurman's The Blacker the Berry (1929), Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun; or, a Novel without a Moral (1929), Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and Claude McKay's Banana Bottom (1938) because we can and should look at the various other works that connect behavior, instruction, and, as I posit here, the black girl.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFrom Bourgeois to Boojie
Subtitle of host publicationBlack Middle-Class Performances
Number of pages19
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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