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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Norval Barksdale on the Enlightened French

More readings from the April 1922 Living Age.  I stumbled across this one and found that it both reinforces and refutes what H.G. Wells had said about misguided nationalism.  It reinforces it because at the time it was written, any number of white Americans were of the belief that they were living in the best and most honorable country in the world, even though much of the country practiced institutionalized racism against a whole class of its citizenry.  And it also refutes Wells, because it speaks to a national trait -- the acceptance of other races as equals -- that France could justifiably take pride in.

Anyway, I've always had mixed feeling about France, but they were clearly way way ahead of us on this one.

LETTER FROM A YOUNG AMERICAN NEGRO TO THE FRENCH PEOPLE

L’Opinion publishes, without further comment than to characterize it as “a very touching document,” the following letter addressed to the French people by Norval P. Barksdale, a young colored man of Kansas City: —

People of France, pause a moment to hear the words of a young man — an American by birth, a Negro by race, but a Frenchman by choice. For, if I may borrow the words of M. Louis Bertrand, “If giving one’s heart to a country and consecrating to it the best of one’s thoughts and deeds entitles a man to belong to that country, perhaps I am not utterly unworthy to bear the glorious name of Frenchman.”

But how am I to write in French — I who can scarcely read your language? I do not know, myself. However, I shall try; for I am convinced that the colored peoples are to find their salvation in French civilization rather than in German Kultur — that is to say, the Kultur of the Germans, the English, and the Americans.

French civilization produced Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandre Dumas, Rene Maran, and a host of other French writers and scholars who had colored blood in their veins. Among the Teutonic nations men of colored blood, no matter how gifted and cultivated, encounter nothing but obstacles and discouragements. Just now we have here a talented Negro comedian, — Charles Gilpin, — who received lately a letter threatening him with death if he ventured into any Southern state. I greet the Negro of France. He knows true liberty; he knows what it is to live. He is what they call “a man.” Teutonic culture makes the Negroes who have the misfortune to be born under its banners mere servile underlings. In order to divest myself of the ideas of Germanic culture, I am studying French, so that I may be able to read books and reviews in that language. I aspire to divest myself of Germanic sentiments and to acquire the sentiments of the French.
People of France, for centuries you have been the aid and support of oppressed nations. We people here, watching through the night of Teutonic barbarism, await the dawn of justice. Sombre and black, indeed, is the night that envelops us now; but we see the first blush of dawn in the distant East. That dawn — the justice and freedom from prejudice with which France treats the colored races — gives us hope.

Recently I have read in French magazines articles by L. Bertrand, A. Albert-Petit, U. Forbin, J. Boulanger, and others — articles full of the spirit and intellect of France that give our people hope and comfort. I can say without fear of contradiction that France is almost the only great European nation that does not cherish unjust prejudices against the Blacks — at least to a great extent.

For this we love you. We shall never forget that in your land we have learned to appreciate the truth that your national motto — “ Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!” — is not a mere trio of empty words. They express the true sentiment of the French nation. That, my French friends, is why your colonial subjects are contented and do not revolt against your rule; that is why we Black men elsewhere honor you and why we are ready to flock to your banner if you ever have need of us. Do not abandon us and you will never regret it.
If you click on the link on Charles Gilpin, you'll see that he was indeed a famous actor, and that he lost his signature role as Brutus Jones in Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" when he objected to the use of the word "nigger" in the play.  After that (around the time of Barksdale's letter), his career fell into disarray, and he died in 1930, at the age of 51.

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