Two Tales of a City: Nineteenth-Century Black Philadelphia

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[Excerpt] In the tension between Forging Freedom and Roots of Violence certain themes present themselves for further research and thought. Neither volume successfully analyzes the historical roots of the African-American class structure. This is especially evident in each book's treatment of the black middling orders. While neither defines the category with clarity, their basic assumption that small shopkeepers and regularly employed workers were critical to the community's ability to withstand some of the worst shocks of racism is important. The clash between these books also raises questions concerning the role of pre-industrial cultural values in the transition to industrial capitalism. Nash notes, and then fails to explore, the significance of black exclusion from industrial life; Lane, however, is quite clear that to be excluded from that transition, despite the pains inclusion brought, is to remain in a position of profound disadvantage. The work of Lane and William Julius Wilson suggests avenues for both historical and contemporary exploration of the economic and cultural effects of this exclusion. In addition, Lane's argument has a particular implication for the writing of nineteenth-century white working-class history as well. It would lend support to the suggestions of Richard Stott and others that we need to be more rigorous in appreciating both the cultural and social values of the pre-industrial world and the specific relevance of those values to industrial society. Finally, there is the central tension between these two books, one that revolves around their respective visions of nineteenth-century African-American urban culture. While neither argument is fully convincing, the structure of Roger Lane's analysis, if not always its development, suggests an important direction for future work. Not to explore these issues historically is to continue the timidity Wilson so sharply criticized in contemporary policy debates. As in so many other areas, it was W.E.B. DuBois who pointed the way when he wrote, in 1899, that "we must study, we must investigate, we must attempt to solve; and the utmost that the world can demand is, not lack of human interest and moral conviction, but rather the heart-quality of fairness, and an earnest desire for the truth despite its possible unpleasantness."
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African-American history; racism; Philadelphia; culture; crime; civil rights
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