Elevate Difference

In Black and White: An Interpretation of the South

From 1888 to 1925, Lily Hardy Hammond accurately predicted the future. In that time period, the prominent activist said and wrote just about everything that progressives and left-leaning people are saying across the United States now. This is simultaneously inspiring and deeply upsetting to read as a young radical in 2008.

In Black and White traces Hardy Hammond’s political writings and presentations over the course of her lifetime. The compilation illuminates clear underlying themes of her activism: Hardy Hammond lambasted upper-middle-class, white Americans for their failure to examine the buttresses of racism, and particularly the absence of universal health care and effective social welfare systems. She wrote many of her speeches and essays within fifty years of the governmental abolition of slavery, criticizing socioeconomically privileged white Americans who felt that after slavery “ended” race relations weren’t their problem anymore.

Hardy Hammond boldly accuses most white Americans of acting childish in their approaches to race: “many of us tell lies because we are not out of the kindergarten yet.” She blames this immature defensiveness for the large number of people of color and poor people put in U.S. prisons; she also highlights how various governmental decisions and policies, such as prohibition, stemmed from racial biases.

She defends the political ideals of socialists, making poignant statements such as “How should we have a social conscience? No nation has ever developed community consciousness while its members were battling for daily bread.” This notion of social consciousness pops up in most of her essays as something markedly, notably absent from the United States. While many members of society are getting shirked economically in such blatant and systematic ways, she points out, those individuals will not be able to help themselves or broader society.

All of these arguments, made public in the late nineteenth century, strongly resonate with the current state of affairs in this nation. In Black and White_ is an essential read for any modern day progressive thinkers. The text is 150 pages of writing by a radical activist who was saying a hundred years ago what might burst forth angrily from many of us now: Little will change in terms of race relations in the United States until the underpinnings of racism have been examined, dissected, and confronted.

The challenge for the reader is trying not to sound defeated in asking, after putting the book down: “Will anything ever change?”

Written by: Loren Krywanczyk, June 1st 2008