In a three-part series of blogs, Professor Simon Newman writes on the cultural significance of James McCune-Smith, describing Smith’s status as one of nineteenth-century America’s great public intellectuals. Part I can be found here, and part III can be found here.
In this second blog on James McCune-Smith, Prof. Newman analyses Smith’s series of articles on New York’s working class African Americans which appeared under the general title ‘Heads of the Colored People’.
Many of Smith’s essays were written for Frederick Douglass’s publications and quite often Smith addressed these to Douglass, abandoning literary conventions in order to write something of interest and importance to a valued friend. Many of his essays shared a concern with rejecting the condescension and paternalism of whites (including Abolitionists) and showing African Americans to be as able, as hard-working, as loving and as spiritual as white Americans. Moreover, Smith delighted in highlighting the ways in which African American culture infused and enriched American life, anticipating Ralph Ellison’s suggestion that Euro-Americans were more African than they knew. In an essay celebrating the multi-racial society of Nicaragua published in 1852 Smith astutely observed that white Americans who doubted the intellect and ability of black Americans did so because they did not see the person in front of them but instead observed “a hideous monster of the mind… so utterly and ineffably monstrous as to frighten reason from its throne, and justice from its balance, and mercy from its hallowed temple,” the product of centuries of racism.
Amongst the most interesting of Smith’s essays are a series of ten biographical character sketches entitled “Heads of the Coloured People,” which were published in Frederick Douglass’s Paper between 1852 and 1854. Smith used his considerable literary skills to paint carefully crafted word portraits of the lives and work of members of New York City’s black working class, many of them people he encountered through his medical practice and pharmacy. This was an era of significant and sometimes violent racism in the city, made worse by a lengthy economic recession that made competition for jobs all the more difficult. Moreover, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that escaped slaves who had made lives for themselves in New York faced recapture and return to the South, forcing many to leave. It was this embattled community, seldom the subject of serious study in mid-nineteenth century America, upon which Smith focused, with essays on a newspaper seller, a washerwoman, a bootblack, a church sexton and others. In order to capture these people Smith experimented with his writing, rejecting the sentimental fictional norms of the day for a kind of realism that was ahead of its time. He described and reported their thoughts and words, often in idiomatic English, and he celebrated them as dignified and respectable residents of the city who deserved respect. Indeed, Smith’s portrayals of the “heads” of black people implicitly lampooned the phrenologists who claimed African Americans were somehow less civilized and not as advanced as white Americans.
Smith’s portraits seamlessly blend classical literary allusions into rich descriptions of working people and their environments. “The Black News-Vendor” was a runaway slave from Virginia who had left the city whenever slave catchers came near, losing his legs two years earlier following a shipwreck off the coast of New Jersey. Smith watched this husband and father, “razed to the knees,” engaging with white customers, observing that “the true heart of the American people beats kindly and with warm sympathy towards him!” From hung-over Irishmen who sometimes view African Americans with great suspicion to “the dandy, who thinks… the negro almost a dog,” the vendor’s customers treated him with respect and kindness, “human creature to human creature”. “The Boot-Black” was an illiterate former slave who was committed to the education of his children, a parent determined that his children would enjoy the advantages denied to him. With no little relish Smith reported that the man’s eldest daughter had become a teacher with a successful school of her own. Smith’s sketch of “The Whitewasher” appears strikingly modern, with its portrayal of a man employed to paint and whitewash walls as one who understood the roots and nature of America’s racial divide and who did not hesitate to exploit it, overcharging the same white customers he lampooned. Admiring the man’s skill as a craftsman, an artist and a businessman, Smith was perhaps most impressed by this African-born former slave’s learning and wit. Still able to write Arabic and recite portions of the Qu’ran he was “full of apt proverbs… always hot and pithy.” When the whitewasher told a “wag” that he had come from Africa, the young white man asked “What brought you here?” “Your broder” responded the whitewasher, and when challenged he went on “Well, he had straight hair, blue eyes, small mout’, and white skin, must be your broder!” With no little satisfaction Smith reported that as “they say in Congress, the “conversation dropped.”” In “The Washerwoman” Smith described a powerful African American woman who as she irons clothes thinks with a smile of the care package she has just sent South to “her sisters and their children who toil as hard but without any pay!” It is the rhythm of her work which defines Smith’s literary sketch, the “Dunk! Dunk!” of the smoothing iron on the board punctuating descriptions that elevate the woman and the dignity of her work.
Although he published all of Smith’s “heads” portraits, Douglass did not entirely approve of them, as he made clear in a “Letter from the Editor” (May 1853). Douglass contended that “little can be learned of the coloured people as a whole by merely seeing them in the streets,” and in contrast he described and celebrated the respectable, middle class African Americans who were members of a church affiliated literary society, before mentioning other prosperous businesses owned by black Americans. “In respect to talents and real ability,” Douglass concluded, the “colored citizens of New York” were an impressive people who showed themselves the equal of whites, and he asked “Why will not my able New York correspondent bring some of the real “heads of the colored people” before our readers?” But Smith ignored his friend, for Smith refused to locate the future of his race solely in the emulation of middle class white respectability by an emerging black middle class. While Douglass felt that Smith’s portraits were demeaning, Smith continued to celebrate craftsmen and labouring men and women who were as able to transcend racism as bourgeois black Americans.
Professor Simon Newman holds the Sir Denis Brogan Chair of American History at the University of Glasgow, and the Director of the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies.