Archive for Aug, 2017

Arthur Schomburg

Arthur Schomburg (1874-1938) was the head of the mailroom at Bankers Trust on Wall Street in New York City from 1908 to 1929. After work, uptown, he was a figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He began what became the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

He gathered books, pamphlets, manuscripts, pictures, magazine and newspaper articles, even Zulu nursery rhymes, everything he could find to piece together the record of black history. Not just black history in the United States, but throughout the African Diaspora and in Africa itself. Without him much of this material would have been lost to time.

It began when he was a boy in Porto Rico. People told him that black people had no history, no achievements, that they were nothing. He set out to prove them wrong. It became his life’s work. It took him even to Europe. In Seville in the south of Spain he saw the government records of the early days of Spanish rule of the West Indies – back when black slavery began! He found out that Spain had had black painters and black professors. It seems he never went to Africa, though he did have material from there.

Schomburg was not interested in history as propaganda. It was the very thing he was fighting against:

“The blatant Caucasian racialist with his theories and assumptions of race superiority and dominance has in turn bred his Ethiopian counterpart – the rash and rabid amateur who has glibly tried to prove half the world’s geniuses to have been Negroes and to trace the pedigree of nineteenth century Americans from the Queen of Sheba.”


“an ounce of fact is worth a pound of controversy.”

He also understood that Caucasian racialists had already allowed for Exceptional Negroes in their picture of the world.

By 1925, thanks to Schomburg and others of like mind, the Public Library in Harlem (now the Schomburg Center) had:

“a special exhibit of books, pamphlets, prints and old engravings, that simply said, to skeptic and believer alike, to scholar and schoolchild, to proud black and astonished white, ‘Here is the evidence.’ Assembled from the rapidly growing collections of the leading Negro book-collectors and research societies, there were in these cases, materials not only for the first true writing of Negro history, but for the rewriting of many important paragraphs of our common American history.”

It even had poems from the 1700s written by Phyllis Wheatley in her own handwriting!

Blacks needed to know their history:

“Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime necessity for the Negro. For him, a group tradition must supply compensation for persecution, and pride of race is the antidote for prejudice. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generation must repair and offset.”

– Abagond, 2017.

Sources: “The Negro Digs Up His Past” (1925) by Arthur Schomburg; “World’s Great Men of Color” (1946) by J.A. Rogers.

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Reading old newspapers

Ad from the Chicago Tribune, August 3rd 1949.

Reading old newspapers – oldspapers? – is almost the opposite experience of reading a new one. And when I say old, I mean from 68 years ago in my case, though you would probably start seeing some of the same effects even in newspapers from five years ago.

Hindsight: First, you have hindsight. You generally know how things turn out. The news, like any good story, gets most of its power from you not knowing how it ends. “What happened next?” is what any good storyteller wants you to keep wondering.

For example:

  • In 1949 Americans did not know if there was going to be another world war soon or if communism was going to take over the government.
  • In 2017, likewise, Americans do not know if Russiagate is true. It may turn out to be nothing – or one of the biggest events in their history. Right now it is hard to tell. But a reader from 68 years from now, from 2085 (!!!), would know and either read the Russiagate stories with great interest – or laugh!

Trivialities: When you read a newspaper 68 years later, you can see right off that most of what it reports is unimportant. It just seems like an excuse to get you to look at ads for automobiles.

Ads: In a new newspaper I barely look at the ads, but in an old newspaper they are the main thing I look at. They more than anything else make you feel like you are back in time. First, because they are more likely to have pictures. Second, because many of the things they sell, like dresses, televisions, and automobiles, have markedly changed over the years. Some of the changes are genuine, like televisions with clearer pictures, but most are just changes in fashion, like in the look of dresses or automobiles.

Frame of mind: Another thing that sticks out that you barely notice in a new newspaper is how people thought about things. At least the sort who bought new automobiles. When you read about 1949 in a history book the fears may be pointed out but you are not made to feel them.

McCarthyism struck in 1950, when Joe McCarthy in the United States Congress began his hunt for communists. But in 1949 you can already feel the winds blowing. People are already getting thrown out of work as suspected communists. Jackie Robinson is getting dragged before Congress to reassure the nation about the patriotism of Negroes (Paul Robeson having created Additional Doubts).

Context: You understand the books of the time better because you see the background against which they were written. That Arthur Miller would write about a witch hunt (“The Crucible”), Ray Bradbury about book burning (“Fahrenheit 451”), and George Orwell about government mind control (“1984”), now makes more sense to me.

Detail: You also get to see the stuff that history books leave on the cutting room floor – like that people were seriously proposing that North America and western Europe become more than just a military alliance.

– Abagond, 2017.

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Programming note #33

For August 2017 I am going on a 1949 media diet: outside of this blog and work, all content I consume must be from 1949 or before – music, film, radio, television, books, magazines and news.

Pencilled in (those with links are free online):

“The given date” means 68 years ago plus one day. So on Sunday August 13th 2017, for example, I will act as if it is Sunday August 14th 1949. That way I read Sunday comics on Sunday, and so on.

Tumblr: only to look at or post content from 1949.

This blog:

  • research: I am going to try to do this with only material from 1949 or before. I am not sure how that will work out!
  • writing: If I use any word not found in H.G. Wells, I will have to make clear its meaning, either inline or in a separate post. I will follow my H.G. Wells style guide.

Second-hand smoke: Since I run a blog in 2017 and do not live in the woods like Thoreau, some 2017 media content is bound to reach me second-hand, especially news. To limit that as much as possible I picked August, when television is in reruns and Congress is in recess.

After the month is over I will do a review.

Suggestions: If you want to suggest content or a post topic, please leave a comment below. If necessary, I will temporarily break my diet to do a post on a topic requested or liked by two or more commenters.

– Abagond, 2017.

Update (August 4th): I added a tab to live blog 1949.

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