From International Socialist Review, Vol.21 No.2, Spring 1960, pp.59-60.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Negro Vanguard
by Richard Bardolph
Rinehart & Company, Inc., New York. 1959. 388 pp. $6.95.
Richard Bardolph, a professor at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, recipient of Ford and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, and author of articles and book reviews in many professional historical journals, wrote this book because, as he says:
“The time has come to lodge the Negro movers and shakers of American social history more firmly in the record, and to assemble, while they may still be discovered, the scattered and elusive facts about their social origins.”
His criterion for selecting his list of persons included in the Negro vanguard is candidly stated in his Prologue: “I have been at great pains to minimize my subjective judgments, for I have tried to assemble a list of those persons who appear most prominently in the written historical record.” His theme is that the central tendency in the evolution of the Negro, like the rest of American society, has been the “development of an order in which status was determined by achievement, not ascribed by birth or caste.”
Bardolph proceeds as follows: He lists the most celebrated Negroes in US history chronologically for three periods – 1770 to 1900, 1900 to 1936 and 1936 to 1959 – divided into categories: religious leaders, educators, artists and entertainers, business and professionals, etc. He makes some generalizations about
“their family backgrounds, their early economic and community environment, educational influences; the role of accident, sources of motivation, the importance of contacts with sympathetic whites and prominent Negroes upon their development; local and regional advantages and, so far as the data permit, some tentative conclusions about the development of the selective mechanisms and social climate that favored their rise.”
He then examines briefly a few of the most typical according to his criteria, and one or two of the exceptions “that prove the rule.”
The author concludes that in the early period such factors as family, acceptability to whites, degree of whiteness, economic advantages, etc., tended to determine status and emergence as leaders, but changing conditions have made the decisive factor individual ability since opportunites are no longer limited by race.
The “message” of the book, which the publishers quote on the jacket, is “a testament of hope, a reaffirmation of the writer’s belief in the essential health of the American democratic tradition.”
The author’s selection of evidence to support this thesis, fails, therefore, to go beneath the surface of the birth, education and occupation and connections with whites or other Negro leaders.
He ignores completely the developments in the class struggle and the actions of the masses, even the Negro masses, as the framework within which leaders emerge. He mentions only incidentally a few fragmentary highlights, like the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington movement and some statistics on population compos-tion changes. And he fails even to mention the monumental conflict within the Negro movement during World War II over the policy of subordination of the Negro struggle to the war effort – probably the biggest single factor in the loss of Communist Party influence in the Negro vanguard.
The influence of non-capitalist ideas in individuals such as A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois are treated as aberrations rather than as serious factors in the development of their thought and expression as leaders.
He gives no serious consideration to the ideological struggles in which the vanguard was involved.
“They disagreed ... about the wisdom of working through political parties, about establishing an independent Negro abolitionist press, and even about the pace of the campaign ... Indeed the propensity for divisions in its leadership, combined with apparently irreconcilable wranglings over ideologies, had already exhibited itself in Negro America before the Civil War.”
No mention is made of the wealth of evidence which exists in the written record of the challenge by the Negro vanguard to the author’s basic thesis: the essential health of the American democratic tradition.
His dismissal of the ideological differences in the vanguard as “wrangling” and a “propensity for divisions” is quite significant: Either Bardolph discounts the capacity of Negro leaders to think independently, since ideological differences are certainly present among white leaders also; or, as is more likely, the author has a limited capacity for understanding and dealing with ideological questions generally.
Nevertheless, the volume of reading, discussion and thought on the question by Bardolph does result in some interesting contributions to an understanding of the Negro problem in the United States.
For example, his examination of the origin and role of the Negro Christian church notes the reasons that many Negro leaders in the past as well as today have been ministers. Negro church leaders, unlike isolated leaders in the professions, education, art and two-party politics, had more direct ties with and opportunities to win support from a mass base. The Negro church afforded opportunities for development of talents, barred elsewhere by race discrimination.
A noted forerunner of Bardolph in the study of the vanguard, George Plekhanov, wrote in The Role of the Individual in History:
“A great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time, needs which arose as a result of general and particular causes. Carlyle, in his well-known book on heroes and hero-worship, calls great men beginners. This is a very apt description. A great man is precisely a beginner because he sees further than others. He solves the scientific problems brought up by the preceding process of intellectual development of society; he points to the new social needs created by the preceding development of social relationships; he takes the initiative in satisfying these needs.”
Bardolph shows some intimation of this view in his Prologue where he states:
“Especially important is the distinguished Negro’s place in current discussions of the race’s capacity for first-class citizenship, at a time when the resolution of the American Dilemma is our major domestic preoccupation, and when all our people need, as never before, the knowledge and insights that inform sound judgment and prudent decisions.”
But an analysis of Negro leaders that fails to examine their ideas and the class-struggle context which gave rise to these ideas can provide only a limited understanding of the role of the Negro vanguard.
Last updated on: 5 May 2009