Diary: James W. C. Pennington, “What Shall We Do with the White People?“ (Anglo-African Magazine, January, 1860)

In the January, 1860, issue of Anglo-African Magazine, a New-York based journal dedicated to the political, social, scientific, and literary perspectives of Black Americans and African-descended people around the globe, the formerly enslaved abolitionist and pastor James W. C. Pennington considers the question of what would happen to White people after the abolition of slavery.

… If we look into their social state, we shall discover but strife, bitterness, and distraction. Not those honest and frank differences of opinion that beget and strengthen sound opinion, but low petty captiousness and cowardly vindictiveness, everywhere pervade. On looking over the country as a whole, we see section divided against section, and clan pitted against clan, and each cheered on by fierce leaders and noisy demagogues on the one side; while compromises and harmony and quiet are sued for on the other by men who are denounced as fogies and fossils by the general voice of the whole people. If we take locality after locality, we shall find the same state of turmoil and confusion. Hand raised against hand, and frown meeting frown. Everywhere is the exclamation sounding “Am I my brother’s keeper!!” Everywhere is written the sentence “What have I to do with thee!” It would seem as if this people anew had builded a tower of Babel, and that a confusion of ideas infinitely more disintegrating than a confusion of tongues, had begun the work of separation and isolation,— their first step in the downward path of barbarism, just as truly as “E Pluribus Unum” was their first step to progress and civilization.

Go with us over the plains of Kansas, and witness there the recent death struggle between sections of this people for the supremacy of wrong over right. Go stand by the grave mounds made there by that fierce struggle; or returning go through the guilded palaces and gorgeous streets, and then through the low sickening hovels of the metropolis of the country; or go with us even to cold philosophical New England, even industrious intellectual Massachusetts, and wander about the factories there; and above all, go with us to the regions of the sunny South, where, without shadow of law, they torture men to their death, outrage women gather up their own little children as calves for the slaughter, and sell them to the highest bidder. Witness all this, and tell us if these things of this people are not true?

The manifold blessings, physical and intellectual, with which God and nature have crowned them in granting them a country so manifestly fitted for the development of a people— a people especially of their peculiar bent and endowments, stand out in wonderful contrast with their conduct, their course, their abuse of the great priveledges so kindly bestowed upon them. Climate the finest in the world, soil the most fertile, topographical facilities the best conceivable; resources greater than that of any other part of the globe, and facilities for their development beyond that of any other country extant; with just enough difficulties— (no more)— to develop in addition, their genius in overcoming the same. These all have been theirs. Everything that nature could bestow and art devise has been placed at their hands, and yet the blight of discord disruption and disunion, has, like a Simoon settled down upon this people.

What then shall we Anglo-Africans do with these white people? “What shall we do with them?” It may seem strange, that a people so crushed and trodden upon; so insignificant as the Anglo-Africans, should even ask the question “what shall we do with the whites?” Indeed, the question may seem presumptuous, quizzical ridiculous; but the truth is, that these white people themselves, through their Press and Legislative Halls, in their pulpits, and on their Rostrums, so constantly talk of nothing but us black people, and have apparently got so far beyond every thing else, that it would seem that their very instincts regard us as in a measure able to settle and make quiet there restlessness, and hence they have actually forced upon us the question which is, the title of this article. It has indeed become a serious question with us: What shall we do with the white people?

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We have, perhaps, been too modest, else we would have raised the question before; and might, it may be, ere this, have found its proper solution. Let us endeavor to compensate for past neglect by an earnest endeavor to settle this important question. But before proceeding to the answer we find another and equally vital question forcing itself in our way, which demanding a moments attention, viz: What is the cause of all this discontent, this unquiet state, this distress? This answer we think may be found in this, viz: a long continued, extensive, and almost complete system of wrong-doing. Like a man who commences the life of a pick-pocket and changes not his way, becomes not only an adept in the profession, but a hardened offender, and reaps the bitter fruits in the end thereof, so also this people. They commenced with the plunder of the Indian, theft of the African, followed by the grossest wrongs upon the Africo-American, and broils with their neighbors without, and stripes among themselves within, the fruits of which are thorough disaffection and agitation.

But another and equally important question forces itself upon us, viz: whither are this people tending? If permitted in their course; if no restraining hand arrest them, who does not forsee that the goal at which they will ultimately arrive will be sure and certain barbarism. Already do we hear it proclaimed through their presses that if other hands than their own are not compelled to labour for them, want and starvation will stalk abroad through the land; blood will flow through the streets like water from the fountain, and repine follow in its train. That where now they have thrift and plenty, dirth will abound, the thorn and the thistle and the deadly brier will spring up and grow, and the more deadly serpent will hiss and nestle therein, that the harvest will be passed and ended, the summer over and gone, and the voice of the turtle be no more heard in the land.

And, indeed, this picture which is not ours but theirs, seems to be not an exaggeration, no fancy sketch, but a reality; for already do we find them grappling each other by the throat for opinion sake—opinions, the result of honest convictions of right and truth. In a large portion of the country already no man among them can express honest truth, without risk of life while everywhere will the hiss of contempt follow him, and the finger of scorn point toward him if he venture upon it. Honesty and truth, unless they be of a certain character, are at discount among this people, and like Rachel for her children go weeping through the land; while dishonesty and falsehood, if of a certain character, stalk boldly forth with the laugh and the joy of demons, and exclaiming, “we have triumphed! we have triumphed!!”

And verily they have triumphed; and in that triumph and what else we have instanced, who does not see that this people are on the direct road to barbarism.

What then shall we Anglo-Africans do with them? How save them and the country from their sure and impending fate? What agencies shall we put forth to arrest so direful a calamity? These are indeed serious questions, and reviewed in the light of earnestness demand, if possible, immediate solution.

This people must be saved; quiet and harmony must be restored. Plans for the removal of these white people, as all such schemes are—such for example as these people have themselves laid for the removal of others out of their midst—would be wrong in conception, and prove abortive in attempt; nor ought it be desirable on our part were it even possible to forcibly remove them. It is their right to stay, only they have no right to jeopard the interest or the peace of the country if permitted to remain. God, in his all wise purpose, has reserved this fair land for other, and higher and nobler purposes than a theatre for the exhibition of prejudices, bitter hates, fierce strifes, dissentions, oppressions, frauds. On the contrary, it was so to speak, reserved for centuries, like a sealed book, and then thrown open just when needed by the Great Author himself that men of every tongue, and clime and hue, should gather thereon, and perfect their development.

So long as we have entertained the belief that this people would ultimately approach toward this point, we have silently bowed without remonstrance or even murmur. We have labored long and faithfully with little or no remuneration, we have been patient, under every trial, and enduring under every burthen placed upon us or selfimposed, that these people might redeem themselves, that they might retrieve their past errors and return to a sense of right. Pressed and circumscribed by them, we have been disposed to make the best of our way; narrow as the space we have as yet been enabled to acquire for our labours, we have been content. But the white people, on the other hand are not content. We find even under depressing circumstances room enough for us in this country, they the white people and they alone, find its boundaries too circumscribed for their greedy grasp. Possessing acres by the millions, yet they would elbow us and all others off of what we possess, to give them room for what they cannot occupy. We want this country, say they, for ourselves, and ourselves alone. What right have they but that of might, to put forth such a cool assumption? Who are these people that they come forth in the light of the Nineteenth century, and, too, after creating the agitation and confusion which now effervesce the entire nation and demand the whole country for themselves and their posterity.

Seriously do we hope, that if the peace of the country is to be so continuously disturbed that they would withdraw. We have arrived at a period when they could easily be spared. We have ceded to these people energy and force of character, and we may add one other characteristic, viz: a roving, unsettled, restless disposition. They are in inclination if not habit, marauders.

It may be, unless we shall find some other effective means of adjusting existing difficulties, that from this point we may have some hope for their Exodus.

We give them also high credit for their material progress. Who knows, but that some day, when, after they shall have fulfilled their mission, carried arts and sciences to their highest point, they will make way for a milder and more genial race, or become so blended in it, as to lose their own peculiar and objectionable characteristics? In any case, in view of the existing state of things around us, let our constant thought be, what for the best good of all shall we do with the White people?

James W. C. Pennington (1807–1870) was an abolitionist, pastor, and writer who escaped slavery in Maryland to settle in Long Island, where he worked as a blacksmith and continued his education. Pennington was the first Black person to attend courses at Yale University, where he could not enroll officially because of strict racial codes. He was ordained as a minister and preached and lectured against slavery across the united states. He wrote a memoir, The Fugitive Blacksmith, and a work of history, A Text Book of the Origin and History of the Colored People. This essay appears in a new anthology from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, Unsung: Unheralded Narratives of American Slavery and Abolition, the first in a series of collaborations with Penguin edited by poet and former Schomberg Center director Kevin Young.

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From Unsung: Unheralded Narratives of American Slavery and Abolition edited by Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Michelle D. Commander. Published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction, suggestions for further reading, headnotes, and compilation copyright © 2021 by The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Image: Detail of James W.C. Pennington by John Robert Dicksee, printed by Day & Son, published by Charles Gilpin, lithograph, mid 19th century, NPG D40143. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons license