The writer of Ecclesiastes asks, "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" Our black men once had a ready answer to that question. If so many of them no longer know how to answer this question, it might very well be due to the legacy of the civil rights movement and to its ideas and stratagems that have been forcefully transmitted by the black church for the past 30 years. Few institutions in this country have a nobler image than the black church. Endlessly praised for its early role in providing blacks with a refuge in an antagonistic world, it is generally considered off limits to close inspection or criticism.
It was not off limits, however, in the early 1900s, to Booker T. Washington's piercing scrutiny. In fact, one of the reasons why Washington was resented by the elites of his day was the laserlike probe he turned on the various hypocrisies of certain blacks, and his no-nonsense assessment of them. When it came to the disproportionate numbers of black men who became "preachers" or took to politics for a living, he could be merciless in his criticism. He publicly lamented the loss to the race of its most vigorous and ambitious men, who chose these easier paths to esteem and financial comfort.
Washington claimed that as soon as some black men "halfway learn to read and write," they grabbed a Bible and ran to open a church, or they took to the political stump. Or they did both. He viewed this behavior as setting a precedent that could ultimately weaken the race. For, instead of playing economically productive roles, as did their counterparts in other ethnic groups, such men removed themselves from the critical task of economic development. As solo operators, and heads of their own little private church entities, they thus avoided the risks of economic competition with other men. Once they established a constituency of loyal followers, they could confidently look forward to some degree of prestige and a dependable income.
Washington decried this "escape to the church," which usually included some heroic notions about finding grand solutions to the race problem. He was alarmed by the fact that the minds of a great many blacks were so "filled with the traditions of the anti-slavery struggle," that it prevented them from "preparing for any definite task in the world." Instead, he complained, large numbers fixed on the idea of "preparing themselves to solve the race problem." Because of the tradition of riding the circuit to preach abolition, there was already a strong tendency among many black men to view themselves as heirs to the great abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, and to emulate these figures as a route to glory and prominence.
Over the years, Washington developed friendships with numbers of black ministers, several of whom he admired and respected. But that did not cloud his judgment about what was really at the bottom of why so many men chose this profession, this "safe haven" away from competition. One year, when he was on a train ride from Alabama to Washington, DC, his train was boarded by a couple of dozen black preachers who, apparently, were on the way to the capital for a church convention. They filled the car with laughter and high spirits, as they dined on home made lunches, smoked, played cards, drank bootleg liquor, and engaged in telling coarse, off-color jokes. In observing this behavior and listening to their conversation, it struck Washington that almost anybody "who took a mind to it" could be a preacher.
He was reminded of a joke about a poor farmer then making the rounds. It seems that the farmer, after spending years with his mule plowing hard, unyielding soil in the hot sun for long hours every day, decided he had had enough of such labor. One day he put down his plow and looked to the sky and proclaimed, "Oh, God, this sun is so hot, and this ground is so hard, I do believe this Negro is called to preach." Could it be our misfortune that, almost a century later, so many black men are still dropping the plow and hearing the "call" to preach?
Unlike black businessmen, black preachers are numerous and everywhere. In some cities, black-owned newspapers fill several pages, not only with listings of all the black churches in town (along with each pastor's photo), but also with announcements of ordinations (recently completed and forthcoming). In the 1950s, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier discussed the question of whether the Negro population was "over-churched." The subject is still as pertinent today. In terms of its most prominent and wealthiest members, American blacks could be called "a race of athletes, entertainers and preachers." A group with a minuscule number of entrepreneurs, it is understandable why its members are totally dependent on others for employment.
From early on, there were blacks expressing the concern that every time a black man built a church, instead of a business, he established his own personal "cathedral of commerce," to benefit himself and a few others. In recent years, it has been pointed out that if the same percentage of the country's Asian men were to take to the pulpit, the political stump, the basketball court, or the entertainment stage, the masses of Asians would find themselves on the bottom of the economic barrel. Ditto for Greeks, Poles, et. al.
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