Dr. Ralph Bunche, political scientist and Acting Mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948-49, did not want to remembered as an African-American or an African American. Bunche wrote that his ancestors had helped build this country, and wanted no insinuation that he should be racially identified, though there was no doubt that he was a tireless defender of “my people.”
In the last few blogs, I have been complaining about a powerful group of white cultural historians who believe they are accurate in describing American descendants of slaves as African-Americans or African Americans without the hyphen. These include such luminaries as David Brion Davis, David Blight, Seymour Drescher, Steven Mintz, and John Stauffer. They are all hard working and productive scholars, good men all, who have done much to remind Americans that the sectional reconciliation that followed the Civil War did not fulfill the emancipatory promise of that momentous conflict. I do not depart from their general view that white supremacy still lingers; see http://clarespark.com/2012/01/21/the-persistence-of-white-racism/.
But I do not understand why they persist in a racialist discourse. Africa, a huge continent, was the site of numerous, distinct societies that were too various to be gathered under the umbrella of pan-Africanism. As cultural historians, they would argue that African survivals created a cohesive community of blacks in America that share a common culture. But such a category, however fluid it may be imagined, covers over class differences and other conflicting interests. These scholars follow W. E. B. Dubois, not Ralph Bunche. They also frequently cite Gunnar Myrdal, who knew nothing about race relations in America, and was chosen by the Carnegie Corporation for precisely that reason, lest their mammoth study of “the Negro problem” be seen as one-sided. So Ralph Bunche, who had been outlining a big study on this very subject, but could not proceed for lack of powerful fundors, was hired as Myrdal’s lead collaborator, and Bunche was not to be intimidated by Myrdal or his sponsors. His voluminous memoranda and correspondence, housed at UCLA Special Collections, were a revelation to me, for the internal debates in the making of An American Dilemma (1944) that were never published told me a lot about “liberal” sponsorship of American history projects with their emphasis on intercultural communication and understanding.
Bunche and his close friend and mentor at Howard University, Abram L. Harris, had great hopes for integrated industrial unions, but recognized that union bosses (the bureaucratic layer) were a menace to the interests of the rank-and-file, white as well as the black workers who were to unite with their working brethren to lift all workers out of the mire of the Great Depression. Bunche was a radical during the 1930s, hence he was no acolyte to those I have called elsewhere “socially responsible capitalists” or “corporatist liberals.” All this is worth remembering as the nation wars over public sector unions and unions in general.
Though Myrdal attacked Bunche and his colleagues as “economic determinists” Bunche never neglected culture and ideology. But what may have made him unacceptable to high society was his plain spoken condemnation of all black nationalist tendencies, seen by him as escapist and often antisemitic. Bunche’s constant reminders to Myrdal that Jews were the only pro-labor members of Negro Betterment Organizations (such as the Urban League) could not have sat well with those who read his memoranda. But it is worth remembering that Bunche spoke out against antisemitism when it was not fashionable to do so.
Although Sir Brian Urquhart has written a commendable biography of Bunche, no one can write a complete biography as long as his voluminous letters to his wife are sealed until the death of his children, Ralph Jr. and Joan. I would like to have been the one to have written that biography, but it cannot be. Still, the many months I have spent in his papers are a highlight of my years in research, and did much to dispel the lingering racism that was my unfortunate inheritance as a student in the 1940s and 1950s. One more memory before Black History Month disappears: the professors I mentioned above are disturbed by the lingering effects of racism into the present, though they are vague about precisely what that entails beyond “race inequality.” Bunche had no doubt on that score: 19th century job competition between black and white workers bred bitterness, he thought, and it would take work to overcome that cultural inheritance. But that kind of talk is forgotten in the age of liberal guilt.