How to be an Antiracist

Midterm primer

The United States’ history of mistreatment towards its Black population is a long and grueling one. After enslaving Africans and bringing them to America against their will, the United States Government seemingly took every opportunity along the road to theoretical racial justice (I say theoretical because we STILL have work to do) to slight, ignore and continue to mistreat Black Americans. What’s more, the Government also took every opportunity, most of which were manifested by Black Americans, to pretend as if it was some beacon of hope and racial justice. In tandem with this, the United States school system doesn’t tend to educate on this less favorable aspect of our history. This also means that Black artists, thinkers etc. don’t get the academic and cultural respect they deserve while the US tries to ignore its’ past of mistreatment. So how do we correct this, well the key is to be Antiracist, and that starts with making up for that lack of education I was talking about earlier. Hopefully today we can address some of that, though I highly suggest you do your own research as I could never cover everything in one piece. With that said, let’s start right after slavery ended.

Ibram X. Kendi (pictured above) How to be an Antiracist

Life Under Lincoln

Most mainstream depictions would have you believe that Lincoln was some hero and a champion of rights for Black Americans. This is a lie. While Lincoln did free the slaves, he only did so when it became practical. Lincoln realized that freed slaves could serve as additional manpower in the fight against the South. With this in mind he eventually singed the emancipation proclamation, hoping for a migration of sorts, of slaves ready to fight in essence for their freedom. Speaking of migration, a second, more prominent migration of the Negro population occured during the early 1900’s. Known as the Great Migration, millions of African Americans left the more racist and unwelcoming South, in search of jobs and footing in the North. This led to higher Black populations in places like Harlem and Chicago (remember those two places). When I say conditions were unwelcoming, I mean it in the worst possible sense. Black Americans were lynched, beaten, mamed and killed. These instances would be excused away under retaliation for alleged crimes such as whistling at a white woman. In reality, these attacks, if they were motivated beyond race, were about things as petty as opening a store in competition with a white owned business. This injustice motivated people like activist and journalist Ida B. Wells to speak out.

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Black Women: History’s Unsung Heroes

While, if we're lucky, we might hear about male Black activists like W.E.B. DuBois or Booker T. Washington in High School, the US education system, and honestly the US at large, has a history of ignoring the work of Black women. Ida B. Wells is a great example of the immense impact Black women have had throughout history. In 1884 she was thrown off a train after refusing to adhere to laws that allowed the South to define discrimination as whatever it wanted. While Wells was present at the founding of the NAACP, she was not credited as a founder. One woman though who had an immense impact via the NAACP was Ella Baker. Baker became part of the NAACP in the 1930’s and was in charge of all branches nationwide by 1943. Baker is credited with bringing the NAACP’s membership from 50,000 to 500,000 (6.3). Even before there were conventions like the NAACP though, Black women were making an impact. Mary McCleod Bethune was an educator and a civil rights leader. She founded what would eventually become Bethune-Cookman University (5.7). Bethune was also an advisor to the president and a close friend of Elenore Rooselvelt.

Ida B. Wells biography

Reconstruction pt. 1

As long as there have been activists there has been a need for activism. This is where we get into the disgusting and continued mistreatment of Black Americans at the hands of the United States government. Immediately after the Civil War, began what is known as “reconstruction”. The theoretical goal here is pretty self explanatory, this was an effort to “reconstruct” the US after the Civil War. As stated, this period started on a note that, while positive, wasn’t the moral victory we might think it was. Again, Lincoln freed the slaves as much for ethical reasons as so they could fight in the Civil War (2.2). After that, reconstruction essentially began with Lincolns assassination, so it’s impossible to know how Black Americans would have fared under Lincoln. What we do know is his replacement: Lyndon B. Johnson, was a mess. Johnson made as much of an attempt to move forward as he did to appeal to the defeated South. Thus began the trend of US officials avoiding sweeping changes so as to maintain their base of those anywhere from moderately to severely racist.

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Reconstruction pt. 2

There were multiple amendments added to the constitution during reconstruction: reconstruction amendments. They were all in theory positive for the Black community, and some actually were ie. the 15th amendment gave Black men the right to vote. There was though a generally vague rhetoric, that either left the door open for racism and discrimination or was outright racist, present in the bodies of these ammendments. Take the 13th amendment which abolished slavery except, and this is crucial, “as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall be duly convicted” (2.7) What this did was leave the door open for convict leasing, a system in which predominantly Black inmates were made to preform unpaid labor (3.2). Shockingly, convict leasing is one of the least overtly racist actions endorsed or enacted by the US government around this time. States like Mississippi instituted laws literally titled Black Codes, designed to mitigate and discriminate against Black residents. These laws included provisions such as no “freedman” was to intermarry with a white person and rules stating that if a Black individual failed to finish work they had been paid to do, their employer, not an official just some random civilian, could arrest that Black person legally and would actually be paid five dollars for bringing them in. (252 Wk 2 Black Codes example)

The Nadir

Following this relatively coy period for anti-black discrimination in America, came an entirely forthright one. The Nadir immediately followed reconstruction and it was grueling (3.1). Plessy vs. Ferguson reaffirmed separate but equal, meaning it was entirely legal to mandate the separation of Black and White civilians and resources. (3.3) In 1890, a bill was introduced that made it legal for a state to declare a group of citizens unfit to vote based on things like literacy tests (remember: at this point we’re in the wake of slavery, and slaves were not taught how to read) and tests in “understanding”.

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Black Cultural Renaissance

As with anything so ugly, there were beautiful moments in all of this. The Harlem Renaissance occurred roughly between the 1910’s and the 1930’s. During this period, Black artists and thinkers saw shine that would have been impossible previously. Take for example Alain Locke, a writer and philosopher who wrote one of the defining texts of the period: “The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaisance”. (4.1) The Harlem Renaissance occurred because civil rights leaders like W.E.B. DuBois thought that if the Black community were in higher regard artistically, rights and equal treatment would follow. This was the birth of aggressive liberal white patronage of Black art and artists. Arguably the most blatant example of this patronage is the Harmon Foundation. The foundation was founded by William E. Harmon and existed to showcase Black art. (4.2) The Harlem Renaissance was the spiritual predecessor of the later Chicago Renaissance. The Chicago Renaissance occurred between the 1930’s and 50’s and did not feature the wealthy white patronage of the Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance: more info


Again, please do your own research. Ironically, while the Harlem Renaissance did effectively ensure Black culture’s place in popular culture for decades to follow, it did not result in the sweeping rights and respect leaders like DuBois hoped. We’ve made progress relative to slavery but we still have a long way to go. This is an ongoing story, hopefully now you’re a little more up to speed.

Following are some of the most important pieces from the Harlem Renaissance

Please take a moment to scroll through and check out the art :)

Essay in Google Doc w/ terms underlined

Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God


Langston Hughes

Poetry foundation




5.4- The Great Depression
2.2- The Emancipation Proclamation: A Military Necessity
Week 3 reading- Hendricks Gender, Race and Politics Ch 1
6.3- Black Postwar Activism
5.7- Franklin D. Roosevelt and The Politics of Race
2.7- 13th and 14th Amendment
3.2- Convict Leasing: History and Culture
252- Wk 2 Black Codes example
3.1- Week 3 Intro Video
3.3- The Nadir Continued
4.1- Week 4 Intro Video
4.2- Video: Against All Odds: Artists of the Harlem Renaissance

Further Reading