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That Friendship of Whites: Philanthropy in Booker T. Washington and Charles Chesnutt

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Abstract:

American philanthropy is big news these days. New trends—dot.com philanthropy, profit-oriented philanthropy, microlending and enormous individual gifts and foundations—are regularly covered in the popular press. What is the significance of these American philanthropies? For some theorists and historians, contemporary philanthropy simply represents a long tradition of American voluntary activity and philanthropic giving (Fleishman 2007); for others, it represents a new twist on a long tradition of American capitalism (Roelofs 2003); for still others, it is not by any means an “American” phenomenon, but rather a transnational bourgeois phenomenon (Adam 2004).
This paper seeks to think through our contemporary moment by returning to another moment when American philanthropy was big news, namely the turn of the twentieth century, when the first modern American foundations emerged. The paper focuses on an extended dispute between the African-American writer, Charles Chesnutt, and the educator Booker T. Washington, over the significance of American philanthropy for African Americans during the “nadir” of race relations. Relying on letters between the men, Washington’s non-fiction writing, and Chesnutt’s fiction, I examine particularly their debate over, and representation of, what they both refer to as “friendly” philanthropic gestures. For Washington the use of the term “friendly” and “friendship” to describe white philanthropy is useful because it taps into one common rhetoric of monopoly capitalism, that of cooperative, harmonious, and rational economic relations. This rhetoric was one that the capitalist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller particularly favored, as I show in the paper.
Chesnutt, however, has patience for neither Washington’s alliance with a kind of capitalism that imagines itself simply as philanthropic, nor with Washington’s rhetoric, writing for example in 1903 to Washington, “I have no confidence in that friendship of the whites which is to take the place of rights, and no expectation of justice at their hands unless it is founded on law.” Nonetheless, Chesnutt is also painfully aware of the very limited legal and political terrain on which blacks operate at the turn of the century, and he is very interested therefore in the leverage that philanthropic white capitalists might provide for African Americans. Writing in 1907 to Washington of the latter’s tutelage of Andrew Carnegie, for example, Chesnutt says, “I must congratulate you on having won over to such active friendship for the Negro, so able and influential a citizen of the world as Mr. Carnegie.” Nonetheless, in his most extended fictional treatment of white philanthropy, The Colonel’s Dream (1905), Chesnutt analyzes American capitalist philanthropy as completely inadequate to the task of alleviating, let alone redressing, entrenched, institutionalized racism. While Chesnutt, in this novel, does not question the “friendly” intentions of the colonel, he raises profound questions about what he does see as a characteristically “American,” but more important, characteristically modern and capitalist response to social inequality. The Washington/Chesnutt debate about “friendly” American philanthropy, therefore, lays out for us an important terrain on which to discuss the convergence of ethnic and minority issues with the workings of transnational capital.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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Sawaya, Francesca. "That Friendship of Whites: Philanthropy in Booker T. Washington and Charles Chesnutt" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct 16, 2008 <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244406_index.html>

APA Citation:

Sawaya, F. , 2008-10-16 "That Friendship of Whites: Philanthropy in Booker T. Washington and Charles Chesnutt" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244406_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: American philanthropy is big news these days. New trends—dot.com philanthropy, profit-oriented philanthropy, microlending and enormous individual gifts and foundations—are regularly covered in the popular press. What is the significance of these American philanthropies? For some theorists and historians, contemporary philanthropy simply represents a long tradition of American voluntary activity and philanthropic giving (Fleishman 2007); for others, it represents a new twist on a long tradition of American capitalism (Roelofs 2003); for still others, it is not by any means an “American” phenomenon, but rather a transnational bourgeois phenomenon (Adam 2004).
This paper seeks to think through our contemporary moment by returning to another moment when American philanthropy was big news, namely the turn of the twentieth century, when the first modern American foundations emerged. The paper focuses on an extended dispute between the African-American writer, Charles Chesnutt, and the educator Booker T. Washington, over the significance of American philanthropy for African Americans during the “nadir” of race relations. Relying on letters between the men, Washington’s non-fiction writing, and Chesnutt’s fiction, I examine particularly their debate over, and representation of, what they both refer to as “friendly” philanthropic gestures. For Washington the use of the term “friendly” and “friendship” to describe white philanthropy is useful because it taps into one common rhetoric of monopoly capitalism, that of cooperative, harmonious, and rational economic relations. This rhetoric was one that the capitalist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller particularly favored, as I show in the paper.
Chesnutt, however, has patience for neither Washington’s alliance with a kind of capitalism that imagines itself simply as philanthropic, nor with Washington’s rhetoric, writing for example in 1903 to Washington, “I have no confidence in that friendship of the whites which is to take the place of rights, and no expectation of justice at their hands unless it is founded on law.” Nonetheless, Chesnutt is also painfully aware of the very limited legal and political terrain on which blacks operate at the turn of the century, and he is very interested therefore in the leverage that philanthropic white capitalists might provide for African Americans. Writing in 1907 to Washington of the latter’s tutelage of Andrew Carnegie, for example, Chesnutt says, “I must congratulate you on having won over to such active friendship for the Negro, so able and influential a citizen of the world as Mr. Carnegie.” Nonetheless, in his most extended fictional treatment of white philanthropy, The Colonel’s Dream (1905), Chesnutt analyzes American capitalist philanthropy as completely inadequate to the task of alleviating, let alone redressing, entrenched, institutionalized racism. While Chesnutt, in this novel, does not question the “friendly” intentions of the colonel, he raises profound questions about what he does see as a characteristically “American,” but more important, characteristically modern and capitalist response to social inequality. The Washington/Chesnutt debate about “friendly” American philanthropy, therefore, lays out for us an important terrain on which to discuss the convergence of ethnic and minority issues with the workings of transnational capital.


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