Rayford W. Logan and the Dilemma of the African-American Intellectual.
Disillusioned by advances that cost more in human suffering than even now we can calculate, black activists in the sixties urged their people to look to Africa for a sense of heritage and spiritual renewal. A number of the activists were former Howard University students who with Bob Moses, John Lewis, and Diane Nash largely formed the leadership of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. While some Howard faculty took pride in their former students opposing racism, their reaction to renewed interest in Africa was more mixed. The reaction of the distinguished historian Rayford Logan was that, while some blacks might return to Africa in search of roots, he would go to Scotland in search of his. The difficulty for those who knew him was that it was not at all apparent that he was joking.
A complex figure, Logan was capable of gentleness toward a colleague with whom he had not passed words for the longest period of time. At commencement one day, wearing his Harvard gown, Logan approached Sterling A. Brown and implored: "Sterling, let's march together. Will you march with me today?" With scarcely a word, Brown waved him away. Yet the two continued to share much in common, including the conviction that they were unappreciated at Howard, a conclusion reinforced on a day that brought home to each at least as much to regret as to recall with pride.
From roughly 1930 to 1950, Howard had at least a dozen black scholars accomplished enough to teach at any university in the nation. In disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, biology, education, literature, history, law, medicine, chemistry, political science, and economics, brilliant talents trained in American universities such as Harvard and Columbia, and in foreign ones such as Oxford and Vienna, were at Howard. Blacks of impressive talent, one of whom was trained at Berlin and others at Chicago and Harvard, were present in smaller numbers at Atlanta University and at Fisk. These scholars experienced, at the college and graduate levels, snubs and insults, quite apart from segregated housing and social inequality, which prepared them to resume living - and to begin their careers in earnest - largely apart from white scholars and from white students. All of this is convincingly treated by Kenneth Robert Janken in his revealing Rayford W. Logan and the Dilemma of the African American Intellectual. At the same time, Janken demonstrates that influential white scholars such as Melville Herskovits and John Dollard sometimes favored roadblocks between funding agencies and distinguished black academics, even contending, in the case of Herskovits, that W. E. B. Du Bois was not a "scholar." In matters of race, American higher education was hardly more progressive than American life.
With some skill, Robert Janken offers Rayford W. Logan as a metaphor for black scholars at that especially difficult time for them at Howard and elsewhere. In particular, his study of Logan should be consulted by those seeking a better understanding of others of the Howard group whose stories have not yet been told. There are numerous tragic findings, one an unflattering portrait of Ralph Bunche, filled in with brush strokes from a number of his former Howard colleagues, that represents him as sadly deferring to whites. A strength of Janken's book is that he shows how the effects of racism at times force into view unresolved problems of personality that might otherwise find more constructive outlets.
Until the appearance of this biography, Logan's reputation had rested almost exclusively on his work as an historian. And yet there was reason to suspect his life's history was somehow broader and richer. His exchange of letters over time with W. E. B. Du Bois suggests as much, and his failure to turn in fear from Du Bois - and even from Paul Robeson - during the Cold War all but confirms it.
Barely out of Williams College and sympathetic to socialism, Logan so impressed Du Bois that he was given the job as translator at the second Pan-African Congress and appointed a representative of that movement despite his youthfulness. Janken also argues that Logan did much of the work on Woodson's The African Background Outlined, although all Woodson says in his Preface regarding his colleague is that "Mr. Rayford Logan assisted in reading the proof" (v). Janken, however, provides no discussion of how radically opposed to the Logan corpus that work is, of how Logan could possibly have written it.
But revelations regarding Logan's Civil Rights activities in Atlanta in voter registration and citizenship training in the thirties are convincing, fresh contributions to our knowledge of the man. Indeed, it appears that Logan was right in considering himself an important figure in African American history, quite apart from his reputation as an historian. More precisely, Janken appears to have confirmed what troubled Logan greatly, that he did not receive the credit deserved from his involvement in helping to make as well as write history.
Janken does a fine job in exploring Logan's formative years in black Washington, identifying those who were, with respect to pedigree, traveling in higher social orbits than the Logan family. Not having measured up to the standards of the black aristocracy, a sadly deluded group that found some salvation in being light in color, was doubtless a primary source of problems that haunted Logan. Moreover, that a number of individuals with firmer claims to having been born to "respected" families went on to perhaps brighter futures than Logan or, for that matter, many whites of notable achievement, was scarcely an antidote to Logan's feelings of inadequacy.
Though Janken overestimates the impact of Logan's abhorrence of the word black as a designation for his people, a less sensitive scholar might have made of Logan's peculiar aversion to the word the stuff of caricature. Still, Janken's assertion that "to most people who knew him well, Rayford Logan will forever be remembered as the man who rejected the appellation 'black'" (3) is questionable as a defining characteristic now that we know what those who knew him well must have long known, that he was a man of multifaceted and important interests and endeavors.
While Janken can be faulted for knowing little of the names controversy scholarship, for not going further back in time than rather late in its history to Richard B. Moore, this is hardly a serious criticism compared to other problems in his book. Though some consideration is given to how those in American higher education manipulated the chords of racism, orchestrating damage far beyond Howard, flaws in conventional academic methods and materials are of no particular concern in a study that charges, for instance, Du Bois with "romanticism" with respect to African history, and Carter Woodson with "glorifying" the history of black people. Apparently Janken assumes there is tacit agreement on these subjects, for he offers no discussion to support either claim.
A certain conventionality courses through much of Janken's Rayford W. Logan. Its form is the predictable one of the author being seemingly unaware of scholarship in a number of disciplines that cuts against the grain of standard offerings, in this case offerings that have steadily lost ground over the past three decades. Thus, in Janken's discussion of Pan- Africanism there is not so much as a reference to the long struggle to unite people of African ancestry that began, in this country, at least as early as David Walker among free blacks and well before that in slave communities. Moreover, we are led to believe that, despite the upsurge in interest in Africa following the passage of the Civil Rights Bills of 1964 and 1965, Pan-Africanism has "waxed and waned in popularity among African Americans in proportion to racial discrimination and its effect on the African American intelligentsia" (48).
This argument, based on a conclusion by Imanuel Geiss in The Pan-African Movement, has roots in earlier work on black nationalism by August Meier that mistakenly argues that black nationalism has waxed and waned for similar reasons. Like Geiss and Meier, Janken is silent, and with less reason at this hour, on the role of African spirituality in slavery not only in bridging ethnic divides but in bringing into being new cultural forms related to that process. Woodson's The African Background Outlined would have been the ideal point of departure for discussion of what Logan makes of important aspects of African culture in American slavery, a subject of great concern in American history at this hour.
In short, a discussion of Pan-Africanism that is consonant with the best of scholarship on the subject would have formed the appropriate backdrop against which Logan's views could have been examined. The reader would then have had a far better sense of what has long been at stake in the struggle for liberation, not simply for Logan but for black people as a whole. If Logan did indeed research and write most of The African Background Outlined, as Janken contends, then this somewhat inscrutable Pan-Africanist was far more aware of the creative intelligence of blacks in slavery - and that has its own profound implications - than one could possibly have expected.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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