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Alice Dunbar-Nelson.
“Facing Life Squarely.”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Alice Dunbar-Nelson

The Girl Reserves in their beautiful ritual promise to “face life squarely.” Surely a most essential thing for all young girls to know; to learn to look with honest, clear-eyed vision at life, stripping away shams and non-essentials, facing facts and not being lured from the truth by silly reticences and repressions.

I wish that every girl of our race could learn the code of the Girl Reserves — at least that one part of it. And I wish that every Aframerican woman in this country could take as the essential basic element of her life this one thing — to face life squarely. We have come a long way from the Victorian days of repressions and hidings of the truth, and silences about what everyone knew was true, and pretences and shams, when the mention of any portion of anatomy but the face was silenced with blushes, and no respectable woman wore silk stockings. But we still love to deceive ourselves, and while we are less prudish than our Victorian mothers, we are still afraid of the truth as it touches the fabric of society. And we love to make high-sounding phrases which mean nothing, and to talk glibly about progress and changes in the social order and the superiority of the age, and how mankind is marching on, and kindred banal stuff. And the mere mention of a question which might puncture the gossamer veil of pretense cloaking the meaningless words causes consternation.

Let me illustrate: We are fond of talking nowadays about “Progress in Race Relations.” It is a phrase that is on the tongues of white and black — those interested in sociology and economics. We are deluged with releases giving statistics of the increased good will between the races. Headlines of startling height in some of our papers record touching instances of affection and love between Nordics and Aframericans.

Much is doubtless true. Southern colleges and universities are studying the Negro as never before. Men and women of our race appear before their student bodies, and in the classrooms, getting respectful and interested hearings. A thing unthinkable in any term twenty-five years ago. The Negro just now is the pet subject of litterateurs and sociologists. He is in the hey-dey of an unprecedented era of popularity. And so his emissaries are given eager attention; his books are read avidly, and best of all, bought and circulated. Gatherings and meetings and conferences between the races in the South are common occurrences, and there is no longer fear and wonder on the part of the Southern white women lest fire from Heaven descend upon them in wrath at meeting black men on a quasi equality.

But — let us face the situation squarely. We are apt to be lulled to sleep by the beautiful and touching instances of Christian amity between our people and those of the Nordic race. And yet we ought to know that behind the web of honeyed words, under the skin of every Southern white man and woman there lies the venom of race hatred. As in older days it was said that if you scratch any Russian, you would find a Tartar. We may amend the proverb to say scratch every Nordic and you find a cracker.

The Mississippi Flood is a case in point. While Nature has unloosed the torrent of her wrath upon a hapless land and wrought devastation untold and horror inescapable, similar demons have been unleashed in the souls of the white men in the path of destruction. If there ever were truth in the statement that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” it has lost its applicability in this instance. If the progress in race relations had kept pace with its advertisements, we should not hear the pitiful tales which filter through from the Southland. The thin veneer of civilization has sloughed off the white men and the old slave-driving, whip-cracking, black-women-raping, antebellum, plantation overseer herds the helpless blacks to his own liking, and a virtual slavery exists in the vast flood area.

Let us face this fact squarely. True the plantation owners of Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas are not the highest type of Nordics. They are not the ones who go to colleges or universities, or are interested in lectures or literature. The only race relations they ever heard of are the relations of black man and white master, or black woman and white ravisher. But until the Negroes of the backwoods are safe in the knowledge of their own freedom; until peonage ceases to be winked at by the law; until the chain gang is abolished and simple, elemental justice is dealt the ignorant blacks, we are hiding our heads in the sand. And the women of our race must realize that there is no progress in sobbing with joy over the spectacle of two or three ordinary Southern white women sitting down to talk with several very high class black women over the race problem. We are deluding ourselves if we feel we are getting anywhere by having conferences, where hundreds of black women are wringing their hands because their men have been driven over the crumbling levee to certain death, while the white men stand out of the danger zone.

We have learned to face the issue of lynching squarely. We are no longer hoodwinked by unsupported statements. We know that there have been more lynchings in the present year thus far than in the past. But this phase of the question is a good one for the women to look firmly in the face. Lynchings only occur where Negroes are afraid. When they cease to fear, the white man turns tail and skulks away.

We talk much about the army of graduates who step forth proudly this month ready for their conquering march through life. And we quote statistics to show our remarkable progress and expansion educationally. But if we would face this educational question squarely, we would see that the problem is to keep the standard where it belongs. For as long as we have segregated schools, as long as our educational system in this country is a biracial one, unless every nerve of every one of us is strained to the uttermost, we will have a biracial standard, and the Negro one will inevitably be lower. We cannot afford to deceive ourselves; for the sake of the children we should fight segregation in schools as if it were a poisonous viper attacking the very heart of our race. To face this problem squarely we must admit that the schools are primarily for the children and not for teachers, and that it were far better that our youngsters be thrown into competition with all races in schools, where no quarter is given, and the rate must be kept high, and from whence if they get through, they can emerge strong from the battle, and with respect for their own ability to stand up in a contest of wits, than that they be swathed in the inevitable paternalism of a strictly “colored” school. The job for the women of the race is to abolish the double standard of measurement and achievement of the child. And we do not need to deceive ourselves by averring that such a double standard does not exist.

Perhaps the place at which we are apt to deceive ourselves most blatantly is at the point of political independence. The political independence of any American citizen is a joke. And not only the political independence, but the political participation of the Negro in the affairs of the body politic is something to make high Olympus howl with mirth. Even in New York where the Aframerican is largely Tammanyized, he is no free agent. For being wise, he is an opportunist and slips into the well-worn groove of the perfectly obvious.

But now and then we hear of groups among us having conferences, the women as well as the men. And we talk wisely about what will be done to candidates when they dare to rear their heads. And if we were honest enough with ourselves to face the issue squarely, we’d all go home and admit that we will all file in line, march to the ballot box and vote as we are told at the crack of the boss’ whip.

I might go on and multiply instances in our racial and national life where endless confusion of thought and action are caused by our refusing to look situations in the face; by self- and racial-deception, by weak acceptance of the obvious explanation — by “going along” in other words.

Oh, that the girls may teach the women and the boys teach the men the wisdom of “facing life squarely.”

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Dunbar-Nelson, Alice. “Facing Life Squarely.” Messenger 9 May 1927: 219. Print.

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