TUESDAY, MARCH 15, 2022
"Quiet Trailblazer's" scare quotes: Friend, do you belong to a "race?"
Yes, that's the actual question we're starting with today. Let's make sure you understand what we're actually asking.
We aren't asking if you will be treated as if you belong to a "race." We aren't asking if other people will instantly see you as a member of a "race."
We're asking if you think you really do belong to a "race." Alao, if you think you do belong to a race, we're asking what you think that means.
Why are we asking those questions? In part, we're asking because of something the leading authority on this complex topic says:
Modern science regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned based on rules made by society. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning.
"Modern science regards race as a social construct...Race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning."
So says the leading authority. In fact, the leading authority makes those statements in the very first paragraph of its lengthy discussion of this complex topic.
According to the leading authority, our notions of "race" don't have any inherent biological meaning! But what exactly does that statement mean? And if "race" doesn't have any biological meaning, to what extent can it be said that anyone belongs to a "race?"
Long ago and far away, Mary Frances Early didn't seem to believe that she belonged to a "race." Rather, she seemed to believe that she belonged to the only actual race.
As we noted yesterday, Early wrote the prayer shown below back in 1953, when she'd just turned 17. She went on to become the first African-American to receive a degree from the University of Georgia—but this is what she wrote as she was starting her freshman year at the school which is known today as Clark Atlanta University:
EARLY (1953): Tonight, I pray a fervent prayer for the freshman class of Clark College, and the freshman classes all over the world—that they might dedicate themselves to the task of finishing this college course of four years, if possible, and then turn back to help their people who are not as fortunate as they—mold themselves into true citizens of the United States and of America so that someday the Negro race will not be called Negro and the Caucasian race called White, but all will be united together—in one race—the human race, having differences only in the pigment of their skin, texture of their hair, and having this in common—a citizen of the United States of America.
Early almost seemed to believe there was only one race—the human race. She seemed to believe that differences in pigment of skin and texture of hair were trivial pointless distractions.
Did Mary Frances Early, age 17, believe she belonged to a "race?" Did she believe there was "a Negro race" and "a Caucasian race?" Did she perhaps regard that belief as an illusion?
Early went on to be one of the civil rights trailblazers who never became widely famous. She helped integrate the University of Georgia, an improved institution whose education school now bears this honored name:
The Mary Frances Early School of Education
Today, the University of Georgia is a better place. As for Early, she recently published a memoir, The Quiet Trailblazer, from which we draw today's text.
Our question to you today will be this:
Does Early believe she belongs to a "race" even today? We ask that question because of the scare quotes which appear in a passage from her memoir.
In the passage to which we refer, Early is describing an important part of her elementary school education. Scare quotes appear at a crucial place.
Even today, at age 86, does Early believe she belongs to a "race?" We note the scare quotes here:
EARLY (2022): Miss Willis was my favorite teacher while I was in elementary school. She was from Canada and exhibited a more liberal approach to our studies; she was not afraid to enhance and embellish the prescribed curriculum. Perhaps that shaped her plans to marry at the end of the school year and move to another state.
She told us that her grandparents, during the slave-owning era in the United States, fled to Canada via the Underground Railroad. She had returned to get her education because she’d heard glowing reports about Spelman College in Atlanta. We were privileged to have a recent Spelman graduate with a major in English literature. She introduced us to the wonders of Black poetry as well as the conventional poetry of the time. As part of our instruction we had to memorize poems and recite them in class. I was assigned the poem “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth, as well as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes. I loved to recite both and reveled in the joy of being inspired by Black poets in addition to those of the white race. Hearing the poets’ voices through their writing somehow made their humanity (rather than their “race”) all the more moving.
For the record, The Negro Speaks of Rivers is an unspeakably beautiful poem. We recall perusing it with our first class of Baltimore fifth-graders, all the way back in the spring of 1970.
Langston Hughes had written an unspeakably beautiful poem. Even today, at age 86, Early says she got lucky when Miss Willis, late of Canada, exposed her to its beauty.
Early says she gained a great deal from being exposed "to the wonders of Black poetry as well as the conventional poetry of the time." She memorized both Wordsworth and Hughes—and she uses scare quotes as she describes what she gained from this exercise:
Hearing the poets’ voices through their writing somehow made their humanity (rather than their “race”) all the more moving.
Even today, does Early believe that she belongs to a "race?" Does she believe that Wordworth belonged to a race? Does she believe some such thing about Hughes?
Reading that passage in her book, it looks to us like Early is sticking to her conceptual guns. There is no race but the human race, she still seems to be saying.
The other "races" are so-called "races." So it seems she's still saying, almost sixty years after what she said in her prayer as an entering college freshman.
Friend, do you believe that you belong to a "race?" For ourselves, we prefer to put scare quotes around such fraught terms too, although the need to avoid distraction sometimes keeps us from doing so.
With that said, we state a view:
As Professors Gates and Curran have said, we do indeed "need a new language for talking about race." And it seems to us that a new, more instructive language would involve a reversion to that older idea.
That older idea goes like this:
We have only one actual "race," and that's the human race. The belief that those other "races" exist has no scientific validity—descends to us, live and direct, from "the world the slaveholders made."
Today, our flailing liberal / progressive tribe seems to cling to the idea that we do belong to those other "races." We cling to the conceptual framework invented for us by that brutal, benighted "slave-holding" class. That conceptual framework seems to lie at the heart of most of the things we say and do.
It seems to us that we've lost the idea that "it's all just human DNA." We assume that's what the professors were driving at in their recent guest essay in the New York Times—and we think that a successful "new language" might revert to that earlier idea.
Our tribe no longer seems to have a strong connection to that idea. This is nowhere more clear than in the current, perhaps unhelpful practice—a perhaps unhelpful journalistic practice—in which absolutely no complaint, however slender or poorly expressed, is ever left behind.
Tomorrow: Was Hill's complaint well expressed?