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"'What the People Say' about Behavior: The Chicago Defender, Racial Uplift, and Manners"

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Abstract:

Emily Post’s only explicit mention of African Americans in her 1922 Etiquette comes in “Chapter XII: The Well-Appointed House.” In discussing what the correct butler wears, she writes, “Unless he is an old-time colored servant in the South a butler who wears a ‘dress suit’ in the daytime is either a hired waiter who has come in to serve a meal, or he has never been employed by persons of position; and it is unnecessary to add that none but vulgarians would employ a butler (or any other house servant) who wears a mustache!” This marginal mention of African Americans suggests that the target audience of this massively popular conduct book does not include black people; rather, in the world of the etiquette book, the African American exists only as a servant or an accompaniment to good manners, not as an agent of them. Implicitly it suggests that a black man or woman cannot be a gentleman or lady.

Yet, for African Americans of this period, the rhetoric of conduct is a source of intense interest. Manners are an essential component of the plan for racial uplift for African Americans; this notion that good conduct can lead to social transformation is what historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has called a “politics of respectability.” Simply by asserting the necessity of good manners, the African Americans of the period give voice to a different picture of society than that implicitly drawn in Post’s Etiquette. Rather than seeing themselves as accessories to the good manners of white people, African Americans actively work to construct their agency and to assert that they have a choice when it comes to public behavior.

In examining the agency of African Americans of the early twentieth century, I look at the “What the People Say” column of The Chicago Defender, the preeminent black weekly newspaper of the period. This popular column consists of letters to the editor but oftentimes the readers speak to each other, as it is seen as a space where an individual can influence the public at large. In this paper, I analyze the role the readers play in shaping the discourse about the identity and behavior of the race within the pages of the Defender. Even though the Defender works as an organ through which messages of racial uplift are transmitted, its readers are not simply passive recipients. They also act as agents within the public discourse of uplift; the readers give advice to each other by reporting on behavior they think detracts from the race, usually in the context of being embarrassed in front of a white audience, and they delineate what constitutes good manners and what is bad manners. In this paper, then, I examine the public role of the Defender and its readers in creating a politics of respectability that is not simply accommodationist or imitative of white conduct.
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Name: The American Studies Association
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MLA Citation:

Dahn, Eurie. ""'What the People Say' about Behavior: The Chicago Defender, Racial Uplift, and Manners"" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185575_index.html>

APA Citation:

Dahn, E. , 2007-10-11 ""'What the People Say' about Behavior: The Chicago Defender, Racial Uplift, and Manners"" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185575_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: Emily Post’s only explicit mention of African Americans in her 1922 Etiquette comes in “Chapter XII: The Well-Appointed House.” In discussing what the correct butler wears, she writes, “Unless he is an old-time colored servant in the South a butler who wears a ‘dress suit’ in the daytime is either a hired waiter who has come in to serve a meal, or he has never been employed by persons of position; and it is unnecessary to add that none but vulgarians would employ a butler (or any other house servant) who wears a mustache!” This marginal mention of African Americans suggests that the target audience of this massively popular conduct book does not include black people; rather, in the world of the etiquette book, the African American exists only as a servant or an accompaniment to good manners, not as an agent of them. Implicitly it suggests that a black man or woman cannot be a gentleman or lady.

Yet, for African Americans of this period, the rhetoric of conduct is a source of intense interest. Manners are an essential component of the plan for racial uplift for African Americans; this notion that good conduct can lead to social transformation is what historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has called a “politics of respectability.” Simply by asserting the necessity of good manners, the African Americans of the period give voice to a different picture of society than that implicitly drawn in Post’s Etiquette. Rather than seeing themselves as accessories to the good manners of white people, African Americans actively work to construct their agency and to assert that they have a choice when it comes to public behavior.

In examining the agency of African Americans of the early twentieth century, I look at the “What the People Say” column of The Chicago Defender, the preeminent black weekly newspaper of the period. This popular column consists of letters to the editor but oftentimes the readers speak to each other, as it is seen as a space where an individual can influence the public at large. In this paper, I analyze the role the readers play in shaping the discourse about the identity and behavior of the race within the pages of the Defender. Even though the Defender works as an organ through which messages of racial uplift are transmitted, its readers are not simply passive recipients. They also act as agents within the public discourse of uplift; the readers give advice to each other by reporting on behavior they think detracts from the race, usually in the context of being embarrassed in front of a white audience, and they delineate what constitutes good manners and what is bad manners. In this paper, then, I examine the public role of the Defender and its readers in creating a politics of respectability that is not simply accommodationist or imitative of white conduct.

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