By Robert Field
Post-Darwinism insinuations that African-Americans were inherently inferior to Caucasians were clearly refuted by the brilliance and careers of such luminaries as Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, later Paul Robeson and thousands of others that were referred to as the “Ten Percent.”
Nevertheless over my long life (84 years now) I had frequent contact with the other 90% and witnessed a large evolution among each generation.
My parents owned Marfield’s, a credit department store, situated as Sixth and Diamond in a portion of North Philadelphia about a mile from the downtown area. During the Depression and for a period after the Second World War their score of salesmen called on prospects and customers of working class background in neighborhoods throughout the city, from virtually then all White Kensington (think “Rocky”) to almost solidly Black North, West and the non-Italian neighborhoods in South Philadelphia. Customers either bought merchandise brought to their doors by route salesmen or visited our store for furniture, appliances and clothing.
The sales persons came by their homes once a week to collect installments on their debt, often one or two dollars. (Corrected for intervening inflation, this amounted to from $8 to $16 dollars.) While in my senior year of high school, I was tasked on Saturdays with collecting installment payments on a route. This took me into scores of African-American households.
Later while working for my eldest brother who owned housing in near North Philadelphia that had been converted into apartments, I also collected rent from the African-American occupants. It was sorted business but it did bring me into contact with that generation of Blacks, many of whom had migrated from the South.
Most Blacks at that the time spoke very differently, were educationally deprived, and not yet influenced by White culture. This diminished employment opportunities, especially for the males. The females often work as domestics in suburban White households.
Showbiz faces the problem of how to portray the typical African-American of the past. More recently they are portrayed as speaking mostly the same way as Caucasians. For good or bad, it does present an inaccurate picture of the past.
Some will say my reference to “White culture” is bigoted. I have always considered myself a racist in recovery… which was largely the case of others of my generation. Nevertheless, for good or for bad, the influence of the White decorum and practices brought into homes by the introduction of television had immeasurable influence on African-Americans speech and education as each generation evolved. This was furthered with later shows about middle class Black families (Nat ‘King’ Cole by himself and then the Dianne Carroll Show, The Crosbys and later The Jeffersons.)
At the current point in time, there is little difference between Whites and Blacks apart form certain ethnic practices typical of all of us that we hold dear to identify with our ancestry. Skin color is hardly noticed or relevant to our young people. Dating and marriage between the races is common. At times even I cannot remember the color of some of the people I have met or seen.
Although African-Americans are now fortunately in the forefront of leadership, it would be a mistake to think that prior to the latter part of the twentieth century that the majority where prepared and educated to fill the same positions as recent and current generations.
From the outset I anticipated such an evolution over two or three generations from my experiences in visits to African-American households and discussions with Black college friends.
My early visit to African-American households led to some of the most important efforts of my life, perhaps the best example was my co-founding with Professor Melvin Allen of Project Forward Leap.