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William Hannibal Thomas, b. 1843
The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become: A Critical and Practical Discussion
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1901.


Published in 1901,William Hannibal Thomas's The American Negro is a controversial review of the history of black Americans and an assessment of the challenges that faced them at the beginning of the twentieth century. A northern black, Thomas is a vitriolic critic of what he calls "Negro characteristics\" and suggests that African Americans will only achieve a desirable standard of living--in both the economic and moral sense--through association with and emulation of Anglo-Saxon society. Though Thomas acknowledges the destructive effects of slavery and the difficulties that restricted freedmen during Reconstruction, he contends that continuing illiteracy, lassitude, moral degeneracy and religious corruption is the result of the inferior intellect and animalistic sensuality with which all blacks are burdened. He looks to the church (along with white America) as a source of moral and intellectual instruction for African Americans.

In describing the role of the church within the black community, Thomas writes that \"most of the ignorance and degradation endured by the race is justly chargeable to a false system of Christianity, intent on blinding the consciences of men by burdening their souls with shams and pretence. The freedman's ethical notions, with their insidious and execrable teachings, as well as his false social ideas, inflict degradation on the race\" (405). He describes the black clergy as shallow-minded and arrogant men who are unable to make sense of right and wrong. Suggesting that the African American clergy focuses on ritualistic frenzy and energetic displays, Thomas bemoans the lack of church-based moral instruction within the black community. In an effort to remedy these problems, Thomas suggests that \"fraternal unity\" is the best way to pursue a true American Christianity. He hopes to see the African church subsumed by the larger white Protestant churches, and black clergy trained by reputable ministers. He echoes this idea when suggesting that white women (whom he judges as morally strong) undertake the moral instruction of the freedmen and women. Despite these proposals, Thomas is not optimistic about the future for African Americans; he suggests that too many blacks are constrained by ignorance and indolence and will not be able to contribute to American society without the moralizing power of true Christianity.

Bryan Sinche

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