"Preachers, teachers, leaders , welfare workers ought to address themselves to the supreme task of teaching the entire [African-American] race to glorify what it has--its face (its color); its place (its homes and communities); its grace (its spiritual endowment)," wrote Nannie H. Burroughs the founding leader of the Women's Convention Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention and one of the founders of the Black Social Gospel in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition. I'm glad to have discovered Burroughs through this book.
Of her Dorrien writes, "Burroughs brushed off conservative male constraints and middle-class family conventions, stressing something that made her controversial in the National Baptist Convention (feminist ideology), something that defined her career (the dignity of working-class women's labor), and something that defined her denomination (race pride)."
The annual women's convention were largely made up of working class women, domestics in particular. "Women came to the convention to be inspired by each other and to draw strength for the fight against poverty and abuse." The auxiliary was organized to counter the sexism in the church, this despite the fact that, according to Burroughs, "The women are carrying the burden. . . . They've made possible all we have around us--church, home, school, business."
She taught that working class African-American women were morally superior to most people, particularly white people. "Let us at all time and on all occasions remember that the quiet, dignified individual who is respectful to others is after all the superior individual."
She believed in an active church.: "If a congregation did nothing to improve the life of its community, it had not business being a church and no community should support it." In churches there was "too much Heaven and too little practical Christian living." She advocated the teaching of moral character.
She was called "the female Booker T. Washington" but Dorrien notes that she sided with DuBois on the need for protest politics. He writes that "respectability and social justice politics fit together for Burroughs." Then he quotes Evelyn Brooks Higginbothm in discussing Burroughs, "The politics of respectability, while emphasizing self-help strategies and intra-group reform, provided the platform from which black church women came to demand full equality with white America."
This historical fact made me wonder two things: 1) since church women were so essential to the civil rights marches and protests, Burroughs role is probably significantly underestimated; and 2) when I was taught about the Washington-DuBois debate in tenth grade American history, how interesting it would have been to also learn about Burroughs feminist synthesis of the two.
Like many of these early 20th century theologians, she anticipated movements from later in the century. For instance, "I believe it is the Negro's sacred duty to spiritualize American life and popularize his own color instead of worshipping the color (or lack of color) of another race."
Burroughs advocated natural color and natural hair, long before that became a trend. However, she was also against interracial marriage and jazz music. She thought that the latter would demoralize people and lure them away from holy living.
Like many black leaders of her era, she was a Republican. She was also a sharp critic of the New Deal. Dorrien writes, "The Democratic Party, to her, became a perfect nightmare under Roosevelt, still dedicated to racist barriers in the South, but now committed to coddling an underclass of dependents." She equated the welfare programs with "moral slavery."
But she also understood the need for revolution. When Harlem explored in 1935 she wrote "They have been goaded, hounded, driven around, herded, held down, kicked around and roasted alive. In Harlem the cornered rats fought back."
I enjoyed this point--"She waved off the 'great noise about the race problem,' countering that there was no such thing. There was only the fact that white Americans treated black Americans despicably." A nice, straightforward cutting to the point.
She was also not naive, writing "Yes, we are living in a dark period and it is going to be worse for a while, but I believe that God will lead his people through."
I definitely want to learn more about Nannie Burroughs.