May 24, 1863: “A sensible darkey”

22nd Regiment U.S. Colored Troops

The New York Times had an editorial policy that was actually pretty supportive of black rights, but we see in the editorial below how even the supportive whites displayed a racism that is startling today.

I also note the representation of black dialect, and wonder exactly how, for instance, other people pronounced “Lincoln”? It seems to me that “Linkun” is a pretty good representation of how I say the name. It appears as if the speech of blacks is represented with misspelling just to belittle, even when the pronunciation represented is standard.

Published: May 24, 1863

— It seems as if nothing would please those who claim to be the special and exclusive friends of our African population. After much trouble and bitter discussion, it has been decided that negroes shall have the right to assert their manhood in military clothes and at the point of the bayonet — that they may fight their rebel masters, slay JEFF. DAVIS, bombard and overthrow the Confederacy that is based on the enslavement of their race, and establish their freedom on a permanent foundation. Thousands have embraced the chance held out to them — especially in the Southwest and the South, and it seems as if by Autumn we should have a negro army pretty strong, at least as regards numbers. But this is not enough for the men we refer to. It grieves their souls that the black regiments should be officered by whites — that the pay of the Ethiopian soldier should be less than that of the Caucasian — that the white regiments laugh at the manoeuvres of the green black ones, and prefer not to mess and sleep with them — that a regiment of blacks has been detailed for service before being thoroughly drilled — (it is a wonder the objection is not to their being subjected to drill at all) — and, in fact, almost every day brings forth a now series of complaints about real, imaginary, probable or possible grievances that the negro troops have been, will be, or may be subjected to.

Of course the negroes are greatly impressed by these statements, and imagine that they are being horribly maltreated — far worse, in fact, by Mr. LINCOLN than by JEFF. DAVIS. But a few of them, like Mr. FRED, DOUGLASS and others, have more sensible views of the matter. They know that soldiering and fighting — and especially the soldiering and fighting of an enslaved race for liberty — is a terrible business, involving generally hardships, scorn and outrage of every kind; and that if they wait to fight for their freedom until they can be well paid for it, until they are all elegantly dressed, daintily fed, and applauded as future heroes — the day of their redemption is not very nigh. A black orator in Washington named JOHNSON, put the matter to his brethren quite forcibly the other night in a speech, which we see reported. He said, among other things:

“Before an opportunity was presented for them to do so, many of the black people were spiling for a fight — they were ready and anxious to die for their race — but now whar are dey? What do you want Mr. Linkun to do — feed you on ice-cream? Suppose these white men here were about to be drove into Slavery, wouldn’t they fight? Certainly they would; but you — you would stand tamely and let your hands be crossed behind your back, and told to go on dar, nigger, without resisting it!”

After thus summarily disposing of all the sentimental objections in the case, Mr. JOHNSON closed by a ringing appeal to his black audience:
“Go in de war! and when JEFF. DAVIS sees you, he will say: ‘My Lor, look at de niggers!'”

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One Response to May 24, 1863: “A sensible darkey”

  1. Peter Reilly says:

    I think you may be projecting contemporary sensibilities in your evaluation of this piece. Racism and ethnocentrism were of course endemic in the 19th Century, but I think in this particular piece the purpose of the dialect is to just to make it more colorful. They would have probably done the same for anyone who would be perceived as speaking non-standard English.

    Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “Army Life in a Black Regiment” was criticized for its use of dialect in portraying how his men spoke, but it has also been praised for how it help to preserve the Gullah dialect. I remember reading that Sojourner Truth, who was born in New York and may have heard a lot of Dutch growing up, may have adopted something of a Southern black manner of speaking to better connect with her audience.

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