Over the course of American history, one particular group has had, arguably, the most unique and challenging struggle since the end of the Civil War – African-Americans. Having come to this country in the holds of slave ships, been asked for hundreds of years to work as property for white men, and only receiving emancipation from slavery as the result of a bloody civil war, African-Americans already had a long road ahead in terms of asserting their place in American society. All manner of significant events and developments have occurred since then to mark their unique struggles – the fallout of Reconstruction and the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, the institution of Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation, the Harlem Renaissance in the beginning of the 20th century, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the Civil Rights Movement, and the development of urban hip-hop/rap culture in the 1980s and beyond. All of these developments indicate the unique struggles of African-Americans, which have continued far beyond setting them free from slavery.
Reconstruction and the Tuskegee Institute
Ostensibly, the Emancipation Proclamation was one of the biggest triumphs for African-Americans in American history up to that date. President Abraham Lincoln, in passing the Proclamation, essentially declared all slaves were now freedmen; once the Civil War ended and the South surrendered, this promise was made true. However, after that time came the terrible period of “Reconstruction,” where the Union had to help the battered South rebuild after the war left the countries re-integrated. For African-Americans, this led to the “Negro problem,” in which there was a large population of freedmen without direction or purpose; without any education, job prospects, or a willing white populace who was willing to give them the chance to earn wages for work, many blacks simply stayed on with their white masters since they had no place to go (Washington, 1965).
However, there were two African-American scholars and writers who wished to help black men earn the knowledge and skills they needed to receive a vocation- W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. According to Washington, black men needed vocational skills in order to adjust to freed life; to that end, he created the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with the help of some borrowed money. This was a center dedicated to teaching blacks job skills and training rather than academia; Washington used it to test his faith that blacks could administrate these kinds of major changes to themselves: "I knew that, in a large degree, we were trying an experiment--that of testing whether or not it was possible for Negroes to build up and control the affairs of a large education institution. I knew that if we failed it would injure the whole race" (Up from Slavery). The center itself became one of the most important first institutions for blacks to educate themselves into better employment.
W.E.B. DuBois, however, believed that intelligence, rather than job skills, was the key to starting to give blacks legitimacy in their newly-emancipated and complete America. He felt that "The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, -- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer selfHe simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American” (DuBois). His train of thought was much more concerned with giving African-Americans the chance to prove their worth equal to whites; as American history raged on, their worth and humanity would continue to be tested in more and more ways.
The Rise of Jim Crow
Just a few decades after Reconstruction, another set of rules and regulations were created in order to subjugate and divide African-Americans, separating them from their white peers – The Jim Crow laws. Enacted in 1876, these laws essentially created a “separate but equal” environment for African-Americans in the Southern states, mandating that they go to separate schools, restaurants, stores, bathrooms and more. The practice of this separation invariably favored whites, who were given better conditions in their facilities than blacks. To that end, the result of these laws led to a systematic set of disadvantages that left African-Americans less equipped to survive and thrive in the South than whites, furthering their challenges in attaining equality.
Jim Crow laws came about as a result of substantial voter fraud and political maneuvering on the part of the Democratic Party of the time, using disputed elections and insurgent groups to break up Republican organizers and prevent them from holding offices in Southern States (Woodward & McFeely, 2001). These Democrats then passed laws to lessen the ability of blacks to vote, including literacy tests and voter registration restrictions, making them less able to have a voice in the government. These laws soon extended to the more prominent Jim Crow laws involving strict segregation of schools and other public places. Jim Crow was a substantial force in the early 20th century, with little ability to actually break Jim Crow laws (The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was quickly shut down and neutered of any effect shortly after its ratification, discouraging Congress from passing civil rights laws for over 50 years) (Woodward & McFeely, 2001).
As previously mentioned, the primary result of Jim Crow laws provided an outlet for institutionalized racism – blacks were forced to go to school in subpar conditions with inadequate resources (black libraries typically received books the white libraries didn’t want any more, etc.), black water fountains barely worked when compared to white fountains, and black equivalents of most services and public buildings were generally subpar. This led to increasingly segregated white and black populations, where blacks were entirely unwelcome in white establishments. Because job discrimination, unfair union practices, restrictive bank lending to blacks, and more were a constant presence in the lives of black families and communities, they simply were not afforded the resources whites got because of segregation. To that end, Jim Crow laws were possibly the worst thing to happen to African-Americans in the South in the early 20th century, and it would take a great deal of effort and struggle to overcome these new challenges.
Finding a Voice in the Harlem Renaissance
While Jim Crow was a substantial presence in the South, restricting the rights of African-Americans as a whole, blacks were finding their voice up North by developing innovative music, poetry and writing that established black writers and artists as prominent and important contributors to the world of American culture. This happened primarily through the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s; growing frustrated and disheartened through the discrimination and increasing modernity of American cities, and the troubles with trying to integrate into a culture that seemingly didn’t want them, black artists used poetry to give voice to their struggles. Poets like Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen all used their voices to represent the anxieties of black people, who all felt they were living in a white world in which they had no place (Huggins, 1973).
The art that was created in the Harlem Renaissance was indicative of the times; blacks often felt they were teased with freedom only to have it snatched from them. At this time, however, black authors found new audiences in white people, who started to see anything black as being novel and unique, including jazz and literature. Even within black culture, class lines started to form; there were upper class blacks who found themselves in conflict between the white culture who chose the business route to attain legitimacy, and lower class blacks who used art as a means of revolution and equality (Huggins, 1973).
Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” is one of the most famous poems of the Harlem Renaissance, speaking about the risk of blacks trying too hard to assimilate into white culture. The poem opens with the line “What happens to a dream deferred?”, exploring the idea of oppressive white culture pushing back against the need of African-Americans to join them in equality and the attainment of their dreams (Hughes, line 1). The poem is full of questions like these, personifying the helplessness his people felt at not being able to achieve their dreams because of the racism of the times. By the end of the poem itself, Hughes questions whether or not missed chances for achieving dreams “just sags / like a heavy load / Or does it explode?” (Hughes, lines 9-11). Here, Hughes offers the hope that dreams will ‘explode’ and make people notice them, gaining legitimacy in visibility. The Harlem Renaissance was full of poetry like this, and the development of an increasingly artistic black culture that would gain prominence and legitimacy in the 20th century.
The Horrors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study
While African-Americans were finding their voice in the Harlem Renaissance, however, something dark and horrifying was happening in the medical research field that would be another point towards the Civil Rights Movement’s momentum. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was a medical experiment in which more than 400 African-American men were infected with syphilis (after being told they were simply receiving free medical treatment) without their knowledge. The experimenters then chose to keep an eye on these subjects, seeing how the effects of syphilis affected black men. The result of this experiment was hundreds of black men and women becoming infected with syphilis and not knowing to receive treatment for decades (Thomas & Quinn, 1982).
Many men and women died as a result of this experiment and lack of treatment, and also solidified the idea that blacks are singular carriers of STDs – the purpose of the experiment was to see if whites and blacks had more than mere cosmetic differences (Rothman, 1982). Perhaps the most insulting thing about the study itself was its federal backing, and the refusal of the US government to admit its involvement in the atrocity (they would not admit this until 1974), avoiding culpability in its horrifying actions (Yoon, 1997). The unethical nature of this experiment showed a flagrant disregard for African-Americans as people, and showed tremendous breach in medical ethics.
The Tuskegee study itself was symptomatic of the overall lack of consideration placed on black people by the federal government, as the federal government signed off on such an unethical and discriminatory experiment which effectively targeted African-Americans for a fatal disease that would go untreated. The spread of syphilis from these unwitting carriers to others was also a major concern, and the study itself led to a substantial gap in AIDS education and the distrust of whites by blacks that led to the Civil Rights Movement.
The Dream of the Civil Rights Movement
In the wake of Jim Crow laws, systemic discrimination, the horrors of experiments like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and more, African-Americans started to organize and demand as a collective their rights to equality and respect in American society. This collection of protests, marches, and pushes for legislation became known as the Civil Rights Movement, and began roughly in the mid-50s and lasted until the mid-60s, if not beyond. This movement, due to its high level of organization and press attention, led to a highly accelerated increase in African-Americans’ rights, the abolition of Jim Crow laws, and increased respect for fair treatment and equal rights for blacks.
The social conditions that led to the Civil Rights Movement are extremely interesting; essentially, World War II made America a world superpower, with a thriving economy and the nearly unlimited potential that brought. To that end, black leads thought it was time to take advantage of America’s secure position as a nation to demand more rights. Leaders of this movement included noted pacifist and preacher Martin Luther King Jr., as well as radical Muslim activist Malcolm X, both of whom had extremely different ideas about how to deal with the problem of rampant discrimination of blacks by whites. King’s philosophy was to perform a campaign of peaceful resistance, in which the end goal was an equal relationship between black and white. Malcolm X, however, soon came to represent the more radical elements of the Black Power Movement, which came about during this time; a reaction to the highly negative reception whites gave blacks, Malcolm X and others sought for further independence and separation from whites, instead taking back their own sense of dignity and power through radical action (Biondi, 2003). Whereas King wanted white and black to hold hands, Malcolm X sought for a ‘defeat’ of sorts of whites, allowing blacks to take their rightful place in America. This split in how to handle the problem of inequality and racial discrimination helped to define the Civil Rights Movement in a very big way.
Regardless of their methods, both leaders (and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole) awakened America to the horrors of discrimination, politically awakened an apathetic black populace, and spearheaded a number of changes to major American institutions to bring about greater equality (Joseph, 2006). The infamous March on Washington, in which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, was a watershed moment for black rights, leading to the swift acceptance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished segregation, Jim Crow laws, and unequal application of voter registration rights (Loevy, 1997).
The Urban Black Experience and the Rise of Hip-Hop
While the Civil Rights Movement brought about substantial advancements in rights and equality for blacks and black culture, problems still arose from discrimination and poverty. With the increase in the development of the metropolitan city in the 1970s, suburbs were created in which wealthy whites could leave the city and live outside of the influence of blacks (a phenomenon known as ‘white flight’) (Campbell and Chang, 2005). This had an effect on inner-city blacks as well; with increases in crime and gang warfare due to poverty, urban black culture became one of violence and discrimination.
Almost as a direct result of black youth’s frustrations with gang life and the inner city experience, rap and hip-hop were created in the South Bronx in the 1970s (Campbell and Chang, 2005). Hip-hop itself was derived from Jamaican traditions of musical poetry and reggae (usually called ‘toasting’), and was brought over to the Bronx. Clive “Cool Herc” Campbell became a DJ who incorporated these elements into his underground shows in clubs, creating ‘break-beat deejaying’ that took samples from existing music and extending dance breaks, speaking in rhythm to the dancers in what would become ‘rapping’ (Campbell and Chang, 2005).
As this particular type of music exploded in the inner city, and hip-hop music became more popular, it started to become more mainstream. Rappers like LL Cool J, Ice-T, Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan started to land major record deals, and suddenly rap became the primary voice for inner-city black culture to voice its continued frustrations with the system they were born into – an extension of the Harlem Renaissance more than a half century later. This also became the main way for inner-city black kids to get out of the city, or otherwise take ownership of the ‘hip hop’ lifestyle that became synonymous with celebration of the ‘gangster’ lifestyle, and further co-opting by white audiences as market forces soon pushed rap further into the realm of mainstream music (Diaware, 1998). As poor black rappers continue to push for a rap career to get out of the ghetto, this becomes a new way for the continually-disenfranchised black culture to express itself.
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