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Are We Able to Go Up and Possess the Land?

Rev. Reverdy C. Ransom
Rev. Reverdy C. Ransom
Reverdy Cassius Ransom was a civil rights leader, editor and the forty-eighth bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

Delivered at St. Johns A.M.E. Church, Cleveland, Ohio, April 1894

“Ye shall go over and shall possess that good land.”—Deut. 4. 22.

To-night I come to you with an interrogation: ” Are we able to go up and possess the land?” I have taken a text which you will find in the 22nd verse of the 4th chapter of Deuteronomy: “Ye shall go over and shall possess that good land.” These are the words of the Law-giver of Israel to the people of Israel. We have simply taken this as a foundation or as a basis upon which to stand, while pointing you to the things we have brought for your consideration tonight. While visiting among my people some weeks ago, I found in one of their homes a little picture or series of pictures: in fact, a very beautiful calendar, issued by a medical firm in New York. It was the most interesting thing I had seen for many a day. It interested me because of its beauty, but it interested me more because of the story it told. On that calendar were the pictures of perhaps six or eight beautiful babies, suspended from a beam in old-fashioned scales, with which we used to weigh, and on the beam over the head of each baby some object was placed which was a symbol of what the child was to become. Over one of the babies there was a plug hat and a pair of gloves; I suppose he was to become a minister, because there are some who think that is all it takes to make a minister. Over another was an inkstand and a pen; I suppose this meant to tell me that this baby was to be a literary man, and over another baby’s head was a bag with a million dollars written across it. He was 15, going to be a millionaire.

Over the head of another there was a crown; that was to proclaim that this baby was going to be a statesman or a ruler, and betwixt the one with the crown over its head and the one with the million-dollar bag over its head was a beautiful little colored baby, over whose head was a great interrogation-point, What? This was the most impressive lecture on the race problem that I ever heard. There was a confession, and a profound one. Here was a boy from the home of a railroad king ; that child will be a millionaire. We can predict his course. Another child has a literary career open to him. There was another child born to political honors: if he was not born to them, there are no impediments in his way to prevent him from obtaining them; but this little colored baby, we can’t tell about him yet. He might be a millionaire, but questionable; he might be a literary man, but questionable; he might be a statesman, but questionable?

If you will take a map of Europe and look upon it, giving your imagination a little play, it would reveal to you nations that have had an illustrious past, a glorious present, and who have now dreams of future glory; great historic people that have figured largely in the destiny and recreation of the world. It would reveal to you the nations that are now managing and carrying on the business of the world, upon the land and upon great waters. That map would reveal to you people who every day and every night have dreams of future glory. But if you were to take a map of Africa and study that part of it which is inhabited by the race from which we are descended, it would reveal to you a people, the greatness of whose past is shrouded in the dim centuries, who in the present play no important part in the affairs of men so far as their individual energies are concerned, what their future destiny will be only one with the inspiration of heaven knows.

The map of Central Africa a few years ago had scarcely any rivers upon it, and few lakes were to be found; of its physical features little was known, but since that time explorers have found lakes and rivers down there, and a country of almost inexhaustible riches, inhabited by people highly susceptible to the influences of civilization. Let the old question come, What will the African become? What will the Negro in America do? What will he become ? This is the question which my artist, of whom I have spoken to-night, found too difficult for solution.

The nations of the earth, and this country in particular, have placed an interrogation-point upon the Negro in America, in Africa, and in . the islands of the sea. What will he do? What will he become? But the question which the hopes and fears of the people have been putting to the destiny and future of the race in Africa, America, and elsewhere, will be answered; and the Negro problem, if problem there be, will be solved: solved by the Negro himself, and all nations will give to his solution their unqualified applause and endorsement. So strong is my confidence in the future of the race. I appreciate it enough to say that if I had had the knowledge that I have today, and if such a thing had been possible when I was preparing to burst open the gates of life to make my entrance into this world and an angel had come down from the bosom of God Almighty and said, “I am going to give you your choice; in what variety of the human race shall I incarnate your soul? Here is the old English stock; she has produced her Shakespeare’s, her Cromwell’s, Milton’s and Gladstone’s, and if it suit you, I will incarnate or graft you to the Anglo-Saxon stock; “or, if the angel had said to me,” The French have produced Racine’s, Molliers, Hugo’s and Napoleons, and if you choose, I will make you a Frenchman; or, here is the good German stock; this race has had her Fredericks, Goethe’s, and her Bismarck’s; I will incarnate your soul in the German race,” after he had finished his speech, feeling as I do to-night, and as I have felt a thousand times, if he had said to me, ” There is yet another people who have been scattered and peeled, hated and despised; these that I have presented to you are great historic nations, prominent in the affairs of the world, and they have written some of the best pages in the history of the world’s progress; but there is another people who have yet to enact their part upon the stage of history, to whom all the great fields of human endeavor stand out, unexplored as the American continent did to Columbus, fields of endeavor in agriculture, in philosophy, in business, in the professions, everywhere; they have yet to demonstrate to the world what they will do, and what part they will play, and what is to be contained in the chapters which they will write in the history of the world’s progress; choose well; your choice is brief, but endless,” I would have said to the angel: ” Make me a Negro.” The Negro is told that he has no past—at least none worthy of record. You know how you feel when somebody comes to Cleveland who knew you before you soared so high, and says, ” I know her; they were poor and lived in an old cabin ; why, I remember them when they hardly had corn-bread.” That is no disgrace ; but the past sometimes makes peoples “feathers fall.” But we are told that we have no past. Some of our historians try to make you believe that you have no past that counts for anything, that you never amounted to anything, that your origin was insignificant, and that you never will be anything. But we have a present and a future, and whatever we were in the past, we are‘lure now, clothed with citizenship and in our right mind.

Not only are we told that we have no past, but this country especially tries to make us believe that we have no future. I mean as men, and that is the reason I am taking God’s precious time to speak these words. I have two boys, and if for them and our descendants among the people of this planet there is no future, let God blot us out of His book. We are told we have no future as men, and the prophets are trying to make their prophecies come true. Every discrimination and every barrier against you and your boy or your girl is to keep that boy and that girl from having a future. Is it not true? Every “Jim Crow” car says that we shall not have a future, but unjust discrimination can not prevent the race from moving on. There are some of our people that believe just what some of our enemies are trying to make come true—that the Negro has no future as a man in America or elsewhere. Some of our people have believed this lie, and men have left their race because they do not believe in it. They do not believe in its future, they do not believe in its destiny, they do not believe in its power to come to anything. They have knocked at every door to get out of it, this you know. It is true that some have left it, but they had to take their Negro blood along; they could not get away from themselves.  “O God ! if I was only white. O God! If I had just enough white blood in me and my hair was straight so I could leave Cleveland, or leave Virginia and come to Cleveland, and none should suspect that I had a strain of Negro blood in my veins, and then if I could not get back into the white race, I would get a pack of ‘Mongrels’ and form a’ Blue Vein Society.’ ” This wail has gone up from many a traitorous heart. But, my friends, there is a land of promise, there is a door of hope, there is a door of entrance to the point of highest vantage. There are some fields before us which we have not conquered, but this or coming generations will. Yea, thousands of boys and girls are in our schools who have sworn that they will enter these fields. I am only going to name a few of them.

The field of literature. What is literature? It is the embalmed treasure of the mind, treasured up and sent down to a life beyond. David and Job, Plato and Shakespeare have come down to us as representatives of historic people, to whom they belong. Every nation that has had literature has drawn for posterity an exact picture of itself. The American people may say what they are, but their literature will tell to posterity how little and how great they were. The history of nations tells what they were. These fields our boys and girls are going to enter. God knows what they will be, for we have some aspirations. The Bible is full of the aspirations of the people that lived in the ages that have been. Three thousand years that have passed away stand in the light a realization of what to David was a dream and to Job was mingled with doubt. So we have aspirations, and not only these, but noble thoughts, and they will yet find expression in what I believe will be among the world’s noblest literature. The other people have been busy, and we are waiting for them to get through.

This is their hour. You know some people do that; they sit back and wait until the other fellow gets through. But the white boy and girl must not halt or wait: write the very best poems you can ; get your histories into shape ; form your thoughts along the highest line, for there are about five million black boys and girls coming. If your ears were good enough you could hear them coming down the corridors of time. They will be here by and by. They have some songs to sing, some histories to write, some aspirations and some thoughts to give to the world. There is another field, the field of business. My friends, let me tell you what you all should know. We have yet to possess that territory, the field of business. Do you not know there is no trouble about a black man getting work just so long as he is not the controlling mind ? You are all right to work until you get to be the director or the controlling mind, and there the trouble begins — right there. Did I not hear no longer than last Summer this wail from a white mechanic: “To think that I should ever come to this, that I should have to work under a ‘Nigger’ boss! ” As long as you are not the controlling mind, there is peace; but of course there are some instances in which we are. There are other fields that must be entered ; but we must not forget that while we are seeking other fields, in the fields of business, agriculture, commerce and manufacture, there is room. I tell you, my friends, that in all of these fields of endeavor there is room for us. We have been told that we shall go over and sit down under the tree of life, but I would like some shade-trees down here. Some of us want to go over there where the land is flowing with milk and honey, but I advise you also to get a little place down here and make it flow with milk and honey. Many of you know that in this country they are crowding to the wall and keeping down millions of our people. We must get to the place that we can enter these fields and to some extent control them. Do not ignore the inviting field of commerce.

We can trade. You could not get along in this world without trade. This man produces something, that another cannot. I tell you, my friends, that a good way to get into business is to create it? That is what the Jew does ; he makes business and sticks to it. When the Italian comes over to this country, all he requires is enough money to buy a bunch of bananas, and he goes out on the street-corner and holloas, ” Bana, tena centa doza,” and thousands of us march up, pay our money and take the goods. A man has no time to prepare after the opportunity arrives. He must be ready when the opportunity comes. The education of our children must not be one-sided. We want some manufacturers, we want some mechanical draughtsmen. We must train for business. We have typewriters, stenographers and book-keepers, but we need more. We are entering the field of professional life and filling respectable places there, and that, too, with great acceptance. I think the time is coming when six or eight or ten million people will not be sitting around on benches or in {he shade some place, waiting for a white man to come and hire them. These boys that are coming up are not going to do it. You must get ready, boys, by laying a good foundation.

And now, friends, a few things more. There is another field of which I wish to speak. There is another land you have yet to enter and possess—that of government and statesmanship. These are the questions the centuries have not answered. Who shall rule? Shall it be a king, an emperor or the people? That has been the question, Who shall rule? The other question has been, How shall we rule and be ruled? These have been the questions that have come down through all the ages, and they are perfectly proper. We have decided in this country that all the people shall rule, and on this side of the sea that they shall rule and be ruled with every man equal under the law. I was talking with a white man recently, who said, ” Your people are getting along finely in this country. Look what they have done in so short a time. You are a preacher, and you know the Bible says that if God did create of one blood all nations, that He set the bounds of their habitation, and this is not your country.” I thought that argument had been hung up or buried long ago. I have a book, “An Appeal to Pharaoh,” written by a prominent man in this country and the great question he discusses is that the Negro is an alien race, and that it is felt everywhere, and God Almighty has marked him with a black skin. He is marked socially, marked politically, marked as he knocks at every door of entrance an alien race.

God Almighty has not fixed the bounds of any man’s habitation. He is not that kind of a God. He was not born in Georgia; the bounds of no race’s habitation are fixed. The facts prove that the English get along all right in Africa, the Africans get along pretty well in this country, we have kept up with the phases of modern civilization right well. Now I have simply to say that we have just as much right here as anybody. You are a man and a citizen, and, being a man and a citizen you have a right to rule and be ruled. Let any question involving citizenship come up south of Mason and Dixon line and then see what politics has to do with it. They settle it. My friends, especially my younger friends, if it was in my power I would take you up and give you a glimpse of that land that lies beyond. I would show you those fields rich with great rewards. I believe that boys and girls with aspirations and inspirations born within them will come with ready hands to batter down these doors of prejudice and enter those fields, and build up all these avenues making for themselves a place and a name, just as other races have done, I speak with a hope. But we want to be men and women here, with one hand in God’s hand and the other one down here, so with one upon the earth and the other one in heaven we will bring heaven down to earth and take the best of earth up to the skies.