Saturday, April 25, 2015

James McCune Smith's The Destiny of the People of Color

James McCune Smith (1813-1865) was an African-American physician, abolitionist, educator, and writer. He was the first African-American to earn a medical degree and become a physician. He was born in New York City, where he attended the African Free School, a public school for the children of slaves and free people of color, which had been founded by the New York Manumission Society, an organization dedicated to the abolition of slavery. Other students at the school who went on to have distinguished careers included Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882, African-American abolitionist, minister, and educator), Ira Aldridge (1807-1868, African-American actor), Alexander Crummell (1819-1898, African-American minister, missionary, and educator), and Samuel Ringgold Ward (1817-1866, African-American minister, abolitionist, and newspaper editor).
      After graduating from the African Free School, McCune Smith applied to Columbia College in New York City and Geneva Medical College, in Geneva, New York, but was unable to gain admission, due to racial discrimination.1 However, with financial assistance from the New York City community, he was able to travel to Scotland to attend the University of Glasgow, where he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in 1835, a master’s degree in 1836, and a medical degree in 1837.2 He returned to New York City in 1837 to start the first general medical and surgical practice by a university-trained African-American physician, and he opened the first pharmacy operated by an African-American.3 He was active in the abolitionist movement, and he worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of Colored People in 1853. He wrote the introduction to Douglass’ second volume of autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). He also published articles in medical journals, and was a founding member of the New York Statistics Society, as well as a member of the American Geographic Society.2 He was appointed a professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College, Ohio in 1863, but died two years later on Long Island, New York in 1865.
      The Destiny of the People of Color is a lecture that McCune Smith delivered to The Philomathean Society and The Hamilton Lyceum in 1841. It was published in 1843. (The Philomathean Society is a collegiate literary society that was started at the University of Pennsylvania in 1813. The Hamilton Lyceum was a literary society that was based in New York City.4)
      McCune Smith explains that in order for people of color to investigate their destiny, they must have some understanding of their present position in society. The basic truths of this position in society, and thus the basic premises for investigating the destiny of people of color, are: “First. We are a minority held in servitude by a majority. Secondly. That majority simulate a Republican form of Government. Thirdly. We, the minority held in servitude, are distinguished by a different complexion from the majority who hold us in thrall.”5
      The social position of people of color in America is unusual, says McCune Smith, insofar as they are held in servitude and yet live in a country that aspires to, or pretends to have, democratic principles of government. However, the proper destiny for people of color is not for them to simply leave the country and flee from oppression, but to remain and struggle against injustice by working to make sure that the American system of government lives up to its democratic principles.
      In order to overcome slavery and oppression, people of color must refute the principle that “might makes right,” by showing that “right makes right.”6 The power of the social majority to hold a minority in servitude does not make that majority morally right. The basis of a democratic system of government is that all citizens are recognized to have equal rights.
      In order to fulfill their destiny, people of color must think not only of the present, but also of the future. They must consider the welfare of future generations whose rights will be affected by their actions. They must show the moral wrongness of returning evil for evil, by showing the rightness of returning good for evil. Acts of injustice cannot rightfully be answered by further acts of injustice; they must be answered by acts of justice.
      McCune Smith quotes the words of the Roman playwright Terence (c. 190 – 159 BCE), “Homo sum humani nil a me alienum puto” (“I am human, and nothing human is alien to me”), which express a sentiment that McCune Smith finds particularly noteworthy, given that Terence was a slave who gained his freedom. McCune Smith regards Terence’s words as an affirmation of the common brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind. The destinies of all human beings are inextricably intertwined. Thus the destiny of people of color, given their being held in servitude by a social majority that pretends to be democratic in its system of government but deprives them of their rights of citizenship, is to save that system of government from perishing as a result of its own contradictions, and to convert it into a system that is truly democratic.
      McCune Smith makes clear that people of color cannot overcome their oppression merely by overthrowing or becoming like their oppressors. Only by affirming the common brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind can liberty and justice truly be achieved.
      The destiny of people of color is a subject also explored by other nineteenth-century abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885), and Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882).
      Douglass (1849) says that the destiny of people of color and the destiny of white people are tied to each other, and that in order for society as a whole to flourish, both people of color and white people must flourish. White people and people of color can flourish only if they do so together.7
      Delany (1854) argues that people of color must be in control of their own political destiny if they are to secure the right to full citizenship. People of color will never secure the right to full citizenship unless everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in government. However, Delany considers it unlikely that there will ever be equality of opportunity in American society, and he therefore advises people of color to consider emigration and the pursuit of nationhood abroad.
      Garnet (1848) explains that the destiny of white people and the destiny of people of color are inseparable, insofar as distinctions between white people and people of color will eventually be erased by the advent of a society in which “mixed race” will be the norm. An increasing number of people will be “mixed race,” making it more difficult to separate people into distinct racial groups. Prejudice against people of color, or “colorphobia,” may therefore one day become an anachronism.


1John Stauffer, “Introduction,” in The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, edited by John Stauffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. xxi.
2Ibid, p. xxi.
3Thomas M. Morgan, “The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), First Black American to Hold a Medical Degree,” in Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 95, No. 7, July 2003, pp. 603-614.
4William Henry Ferris, The African Abroad: Or, His Evolution in Western Civilization, Volume 2 (New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1913) p. 866.
5James McCune Smith “The Destiny of the People of Color (1843)” in The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, edited by John Stauffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 50.
6Ibid., p. 52.
7Frederick Douglass, “The Destiny of Colored Americans,” in The North Star, November 16, 1849.


Delany, Martin Robison. “Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent” (1854), in Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader, edited by Robert S. Levine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), pp. 245-279.

Garnet, Henry Highland. “The Past and the Present Condition, and the Destiny, of the Colored Race” (Troy, NY: J.C. Kneeland, 1848).

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Being Invisible

“I am an invisible man.” –Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

What kind of being belongs to the invisible? Perhaps the being of the invisible is a non-being of the visible, and the being of the visible is a non-being of the invisible. Perhaps we can only say that the invisible “is,” in some respect, if we also say that the visible “is not,” in that same respect. The being of the visible and the being of the invisible may be contradictory to each other.
      Perhaps the being of the invisible is also a nothingness of the visible, an emptiness or void in the realm of the visible. The invisible is that which we know is there, but which we cannot see. 
      Invisibility is the negation of visibility. It is a blank space or hidden territory into which being vanishes or disappears.
      The difference between the visible and the invisible may be analogous to the difference between the seen and the unseen, the discernible and the indiscernible, the apparent and the unapparent, the disclosed and the undisclosed.
      How many degrees of visibility are there? The spectrum may extend from the completely invisible, the virtually invisible, the barely visible, and the slightly visible, to the partially visible, the mostly visible, the completely visible, the obviously visible, and the unavoidably visible.
      If visibility may signify a kind of presence, then invisibility may signify a kind of absence. However, visibility as presence may depend on, and may perpetuate, invisibility as absence.
      The being of the spoken may be invisible insofar as spoken words cannot literally be “seen” by listeners, but it may be visible insofar as spoken words can have visible effects on listeners and speakers. Conversely, the being of the written may be visible insofar as written words are actually seen on a page, screen, wall, or other background, but it may be invisible insofar as written words are unseen unless they are actually being read.
      Of course, when we see the world around us we (usually) assume that we are seeing it as it actually is, and that what we are seeing is real and not imaginary. We (usually) assume that for something to be visible is for it also to be real. On the other hand, we may have no grounds for assuming that for something to be real is for it also to be visible. The visibility of (all of) the real may not follow from the reality of (all or some of) the visible.  The real may often be invisible to us (at least insofar as we are able to see it with the naked eye).
     On the other hand, the hypervisible or all too visible may be that from which we must avert our gaze in order to avoid becoming consciously aware of it. Thus, the fact that something is hypervisible does not always mean that we consciously see and recognize it. We may have various motives for trying to ignore things that are hypervisible. We may also in some cases be less aware of things that are hypervisible than we are of things that are much less visible.
      Visibility and invisibility may be examined in terms of their metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics. The metaphysics of visibility and invisibility may be concerned with the ultimate nature, being, and reality of the visible and invisible. The ethics of visibility and invisibility may be concerned with the obligations that we incur when we make or do not make things visible, and with the responsibilities that we assume when we make or do not make visible those things that should or should not be made visible. The aesthetics of visibility may be concerned with the manner in which (or the degree to which) the visible conforms to such ideals as beauty, elegance, harmony, symmetry, and unity. The politics of visibility and invisibility may be concerned with the manner in which (or the degree to which) the visible and the invisible are produced, recognized, and authorized by law, public policy, and government.
      Being in society (social being) may enable, encourage, or require each of us to have some degree of social visibility. Being socially visible may mean being included among those who are noticed and recognized. Being socially invisible, on the other hand, may mean being excluded from notice or recognition by society.
      Being seen may or may not lead to the awareness of being seen. It may or may not also lead to the awareness of being a visual object. Being seen as a person and being seen as a visual object may to some extent be compatible, insofar as being a person makes possible the experience of being seen as a visual object. On the other hand, being seen as a person and being seen as a visual object may be incompatible insofar as a person is not merely an object, but a whole person, and for him/her to be seen merely as an object is for him/her to have his/her whole personhood ignored and unrecognized by whoever sees him/her in this way.
      To be visible is also to be situated in a field or terrain of visibility. The field or terrain may include other objects that (or persons who) have varying degrees of visibility. The visibility of any particular object (or person) may depend on prevailing environmental conditions as well as on the visual capabilities of the viewer.
      To be visible is also at times to cast a shadow over some other person or object in the viewer’s visual field. The shadow cast by some person or object may obscure the presence of some other person or object, and the relations between those persons or objects may thereby also be obscured. Being invisible may therefore in some cases mean remaining hidden within the shadows. It may also mean being perceived as having only a shadowy, vague, and indeterminate kind of existence.
      We may be compelled by whatever (social, cultural, or historical) situation we find ourselves in to ask ourselves, “How visible are we, and to whom?” To whom must we be visible? To whom do we want to make our presence known? By whom would we rather not be noticed or recognized? From what (or from whose) standpoint do we want or not want to be visible, seen, and recognized? What kind of visibility to others and what kind of recognition by others do we aspire to achieve?
      Minority groups that have been described as invisible in one way or another to the majority of American society include blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, minority women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, elderly people, people with disabilities, children of undocumented immigrants, and other minority groups.
      Being a member of an invisible social minority may mean being faceless and nameless to the social majority, by virtue of being unseen and unrecognized. It may also mean being voiceless, by virtue of having no say in matters that pertain to one’s own destiny. It may also mean having to overcome the social disadvantages suffered by minority group members as a result of the prejudices of majority group members. It may also mean being falsely assumed to enjoy the same social advantages as majority group members. It may also mean being ignored by majority group members, and being discriminated against by them.
      People may be made to feel invisible by not being noticed, by being disregarded, by being forgotten, by not having their presence acknowledged by others, by being talked about as if they were not there, by not being able to get the attention of others, by being interrupted when they are speaking, by not being listened to, by being refused acceptance or recognition by others, by being denied rights that are enjoyed by others, and by not being granted privileges that have under similar conditions been granted to others.