Tag Archives: African-Americans

The best and worst of June and July 1918: Insanity, proto-flappers, and octopus eyes

I’m not in much of a mood to wax philosophical, having recently made my second trip from Cape Town to Washington, D.C. in two months. So I’ll just say that I feel really, really sorry for all those people out there who aren’t spending the year reading as if they were living in 1918. Check out these bests and worsts of June and July to see why.

Best Magazine: The American Journal of Insanity

The American Journal of Insanity is so good that its name isn’t even the best thing about it. It’s full of case histories of various psychological conditions that read like novels.* The saddest is the story, in an article titled “The Insane Psychoneurotic,”  of a Romanian Jewish immigrant who studied to become a lawyer while working (like Marcus Eli Ravage and every other Romanian Jewish immigrant) in a Lower East Side textile factory. He fell into a depression after failing the bar exam three times, became elated when he passed on his fourth try, and then went blind. A doctor restored his sight by pressing a pencil against his eye and telling him that he would be able to see when he opened his eyes. He lost the ability to talk and recovered it when a woman volunteer agreed to his (written) request that she allow him to use her first name. He was institutionalized for a while and released to outpatient care when he seemed to be getting better. Twelve days after his release, though, he hanged himself.

There’s also an article on shell shock by a French doctor that deals in a sympathetic and nuanced manner with the often-dismissed condition, and that in no way justifies the discussion of his and his colleagues’ research in the New York Times under this headline:**

New York Times, July 2, 1918

Before awarding it the prestigious “Best Magazine” title, I figured I should check whether The American Journal of Insanity, like many other erstwhile subjects of my 1918 admiration (I’m looking at you, Marie Carmichael Stopes!), was a fan of eugenics, and in particular of the forced sterilization of “defectives.” So I did a word search of the 1918-1919 volume, cheated a little to glance at the 1919 article that came up, and found out that they were absolutely appalled by it. Way to go, AJI!

Best quote from a book in a review:  

Ambrose Bierce, 1892

“They had a child which they named Joseph and dearly loved, as was then the fashion among parents in all that region.” (From the Ambrose Bierce short story “A Baby Tramp” (1893), quoted in a retrospective on Bierce in The Dial, July 18, 1918.)

Worst Editorial: “Their Hope Doomed to Disappointment,” New York Times, July 27, 1918

A German newspaper has, according to a July 27 Times editorial, proposed that the German army undermine morale among American prisoners of war by making black and white soldiers live together in close quarters.

This, the deviser of the scheme thinks, would give keenest pain both to those thus united in misfortune and to Americans in general…His basis of belief is some vague knowledge he has of the negro’s place in the United States and an exaggerated and distorted notion of an antagonism existing here between the white and black races.

Which, the Times says, is totally not the case!***

Someone should tell the German editor that negroes are not hated in this country—that in innumerable white families they occupy positions that bring them into daily and intimate contact with the other members, especially the children, and it is the Americans who know the negro best that in proper place and season are most forgetful of racial differences or make most kindly allowance for them.

Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

Best Ad: 

I wish I could honor a more healthy product, but Murad owns this category.

Scribner’s, July 1918

Worst Ad:

…Although not all Murad ads are created equal. This one looks like their regular artist was off sick so they hired a failed Italian Futurist as a temp.

New York Times, July 31, 1918

Best Magazine Covers:

I love this Georges Lepape portrait of a short-haired, drop-waisted proto-flapper.

Vanity Fair, July 1918

My favorite thing about this Erté Harper’s Bazar cover, called “Surprises of the Sea,” is the octopus eye.

On to August!

*Although they don’t seem, at this point in the history of psychiatry, to ever actually cure anyone. Which could explain why the case histories read like novels.

**Which first came to my attention as a “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It” Headline of the Day.

***Even though the very same issue has an article and an editorial about lynching.

On W.E.B. Du Bois’ 150th birthday, a look back at his “Jubilee”

The February 1918 issue of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, headlined EDITOR’S JUBILEE NUMBER, starts with this note: “The Editor of the CRISIS will celebrate his fiftieth birthday on the twenty-third of February, 1918. He would be glad on this occasion to have a word from each of his friends.” The editor was W.E.B. Du Bois, born 150 years ago today.

Top of title page of The Crisis, February 1918, Editor's Jubilee Number.

The Crisis, February 1918

The issue includes an autobiographical essay by Du Bois called “The Shadow of Years.” He tells of his ancestry:

a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, and thank God! No “Anglo-Saxon”

—his childhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, playing comfortably with his white friends and largely unaware of the country’s vast racial divide:

I think I probably surprised my hosts more than they me, for I was easily at home and perfectly happy and they looked to me just like ordinary people, while my brown face and frizzled hair must have seemed strange to them

Three photographs of African-American women in The Crisis magazine, 1918.

The Crisis, February 1918

—encountering other African-Americans in large numbers for the first time at Fisk College in Tennessee:

Lo! My people came dancing about me—riotous in color, gay in laughter, full of sympathy, need, and pleading; unbelievably beautiful girls—“colored” girls—sat beside me and actually talked to me while I gazed in tongue-tied silence

—and the “Days of Disillusionment” that fueled his desire to work for the upliftment of his people:

I began to realize how much of what I had called Will and Ability was sheer luck. Suppose my good mother had preferred a steady income from my child labor, rather than bank on the precarious dividend of my higher training?…Suppose Principal Hosmer had been born with no faith in “darkeys,” and instead of giving me Greek and Latin had taught me carpentry and the making of tin pans?

The Souls of Black Folk, title page, second edition, 1903.

Second edition, 1903

If you want to learn more about the human side of this towering (and sometimes intimidating) thinker, you can find the “The Shadow of Years” here. Or you can read “Of the Meaning of Progress,” the essay in Du Bois’ 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk about his days as a young teacher in a rural Tennessee community. (I’ve been listening to the audiobook, wonderfully narrated by Rodney Gardiner.)

In “The Shadow of Years,” Du Bois presents himself as an old man. “The most disquieting sign of my mounting years is a certain garrulity about myself, quite foreign to my young days,” he begins. He ends the essay as follows:

Last year, I looked death in the face and found its lineaments not unkind. But it was not my time. Yet, in nature sometime soon and in the fullness of days, I shall die; quietly, I trust, with my face turned South and Eastward; and dreaming or dreamless, I shall, I am sure, enjoy death as I have enjoyed life.

But Du Bois lived almost long enough to celebrate another Jubilee, dying in Ghana in 1963 at the age of ninety-five.

As for his request in The Crisis for a word from each of his friends, I’ll just say this, from the distance of a hundred years:

Thank you.

(You can read more about The Crisis here and here.)

African-American voices of 1918

The Crisis editorial page, January 1918.

In 1918, African-Americans were almost invisible in the mainstream press. The New York Times, in a January 6 story called “Problems in Training Negro Soldiers,” groused that the “friends of the negro” were pressuring the War Department, which had drafted 83,600 black soldiers, to solve the “so-called race question in America.” The only other reference to African-Americans I’ve seen so far in the Times was the inclusion of an “unidentified Negro woman” on a list of New Yorkers—the rest were all named—who died of exposure during a cold snap.

I sought out African-American voices in honor of Martin Luther King Day, and found them in the January 1918 edition of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine, which was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s the best-written and most interesting magazine of the time that I’ve come across, and it feels the most contemporary.

An article by Lindsey Cooper on the 1917 East St. Louis race riots is the closest thing I’ve seen to modern long-form journalism. Framed as a report on the congressional investigation into the riots—which was conducted, of course, exclusively by white men—it provides an in-depth discussion of the social forces that sparked them. Across the Mississippi from St. Louis and home to many of the area’s African-Americans, East St. Louis, Illinois, was a cesspool of vice. The city subsided mainly by means of saloon licenses (376 saloons for a population of 75,000) because a separate municipality—the nation’s richest per capita—had been carved out for nearby factories.

When the white workers of St. Louis tried to unionize, factory owners thwarted their efforts by hiring black workers arriving from the South. This led to a cauldron of racial resentment that boiled over in an explosion of violence in May and July 1917. At least forty African-Americans were killed as police stood by ineptly or indifferently; some encouraged the violence. The National Guard was called, to little effect.  Cooper recounts the story of a man and his son who were dragged out of a car and killed as they passed through East St. Louis on the way home from a fishing expedition. A member of Congress, told of the incident during the hearing, commented, “Indians could have done no worse.”

Headline and photograph illustration, The Way of the Transgressor, The Crisis, January 1918.

The Crisis also includes the best short story I’ve seen so far, “The Way of the Transgressor,” by Wallace Green. Green doesn’t try any fancy literary tricks, but the story is refreshingly lacking in the archness and overwriting of the day. It tells of a rural square dance that ends in a blaze of violence, but the best part is the depiction of the dance before the guns come out. I felt like I was there at Uncle Tom Morgan’s two-room log house, watching handsome Jack Sutton and tender-eyed Sealy Green walk down the center of the yard arm in arm “like two monarchs upon streets paved with gold, singing ‘You can’t turn the tea like me.’” Young men longed to swing in the beautiful arms of Pet Henderson, in “a red garment that fit her so well that she seemed to have been just taken out of the melting pot.”

And there’s more. A blazing indictment of the hypocrisy of racist white Christians. A letter from “A Voice from the Orient” calling Wilson out for racism. Another letter, apparently from a white Cuban-American soldier, telling of his experience under the inspiring leadership of the Afro-Cuban general Antonio Maceo in the Cuban Army of Liberation. And a refreshingly unsentimental “Mother’s New Year’s Resolution”: “I will live with my children, not merely for them; since such companionship is worth more than divergent ways, marked by needless sacrifices on the one side and a growing selfishness on the other…I will impart to my children the facts of life, that they may look with reverence upon their bodies.”

You can find The Crisis online, thanks to the Modernist Journals Project, at https://modjourn.org/journal/crisis/. It’s well worth a read, on Martin Luther King Day or any day.