Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/January 1897/A Study in Race Psychology

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THE average American negro presents a puzzling contradiction in his educational progress. As a rule he masters the elements of reading with ease; but as a rule also the developed language, the expressive medium of subtle relations and of complex experiences, defies his efforts. It is true that even the untutored roll off abstruse terms and involved phrases with peculiar unction, but this is a case of "words, words," that rather proves than disproves my meaning. I have in mind not sound as such, but sound as "an echo of sense."

The phenomenon which I have mentioned had so often been brought to my notice that I put myself at last to find out the explanation. This could only be done by examining a particular case. Circumstances determined the selection, with the result, of course, that there are conditions to be weighed in the balance. On the whole, however, the case, I believe, is typical. The subject of my experiment is very nearly a full negro, if family tradition and family features may be trusted. No trace of white blood is discernible in either parent, and their ancestors known to them for two generations back were negroes like themselves. On the father's side, tradition says, there was an Indian grandfather three removes from the present generation, but the Indian element has been lost in the transmittal, unless possibly it survives in a slight modification of the African hue. The man is of a dark coffee color, stout built, strong, sluggish, and extremely faithful, as is shown by the fact that he has retained the same place eighteen years. The mother is slightly darker in color than her husband, and of tall, supple figure; her mind is active, her movements are quick; she rules and guides her household by virtue of a superiority that all instinctively recognize. As a girl she was trained to domestic service by a painstaking mistress, while the father passed his youth as an ordinary field hand. Three prenatal conditions are typified in the name which these parents with due ceremony bestowed upon their son—Isaiah Asbury Bell. The family name is theirs only by virtue of a previous condition of servitude to planter Bell; Methodism accounts for the second name, and pious reverence for a book which neither of them can read, and perhaps a certain pleasure in euphonious sounds, for the first. The latter inference is confirmed by the names given their three daughters—Triphenie, Romana, and Albertina. This sensitiveness to sound I note as a family trait, because it may prove to have some bearing upon the boy's personal equation. Isaiah is a young edition of his father, equally sluggish, awkward, and obstinate. At the time of my experiments lie was sixteen years old, and had been regularly at school since his tenth year—that is, for five years—and irregularly from his seventh to his tenth inclusive. He could read the Third Reader in a monotonous, stumbling way, perform simple operations in arithmetic quite rapidly, and write an excellent hand. As he was in my service, I thought it my duty to keep up his education, and, undismayed by many futile efforts with his predecessors in the place, I began daily reading exercises with him. Of necessity, the Third Reader does not interest a boy of sixteen, and, interest being the essential spur to acquisition, I tried the newspaper. Every day I selected some local occurrence which excited his mind, and by talking it over with him and explaining the new words endeavored to give him the mastery of the printed account. By this means the limitations of his vocabulary were soon apparent. It stopped with the names of familiar objects or of actions possible to himself. Outside of that range he never caught at new words as white children do, nor did they excite his curiosity even when the context was interesting. To illustrate: Here is a short list of words, no one of which conveyed any meaning to his mind—testify, drought, witness, apparent, fulfill. These all occurred in an account of the Knox fire, a local event which excited him greatly. We read the matter several times in slightly different forms, and I dwelt upon each of the strange words, giving familiar illustrations of their uses, but the very interest that he felt in the event about which we were reading seemed to interfere with his grasping these particulars. I think his mind never got beyond the general impression that the fire and the ruin as he saw it were described in the paper. His mental state, as it was revealed to me through his reading, might be described as unanalyzed content. Eager to get the true measure of his verbal power, I applied the familiar test of instantaneous associations with a given list of words. I submit the best results that I obtained after repeated experiments with varied lists:

concrete terms.
Associated Ideas. Words. Associated Ideas.
Pole. North. Vase. Blue.
Book. Black. Hat. White.
Pencil. Lead. Horse. Brown.
Paper. Reading. Bear. Grizzly.
Fire. Place. Procession. Street.
I had great difficulty in finding abstract terms which excited any response, but finally secured the following:
Words. Associated Ideas Words. Associated Ideas.
Strength Man's. Anger John (the
name of a comrade).
Memory. His. Fear. Not.
Sorrow. His. Disobedience.
Time. Piece. Love. He.
Courage. Dog. Kindness.

These experiments continued for some time. Meanwhile, vacation days having ended, Isaiah returned to school. Unfortunately, the boy had been kept grinding at the elements when flexibility and susceptibility had long passed their zenith. He had at last, however, arrived at the dignity of geography, which lent momentary zest to his flagging spirits. To encourage the new zeal, I talked over the subject with him at night. A lesson on the races of men seemed to impress him more than usual. When I asked him to repeat the five races whose names and traits he had learned in the morning; he recalled all but the Malay. I finally told him the forgotten name, when he instantly responded, "Oh, yes, the malaria race!" I repeated the name several times without comment, but he failed to notice the distinction. The very next evening a little white girl of ten years, who had also just entered the fifth grade, was telling me the same lesson, and she, like Isaiah, had forgotten the name of one race, the Mongolian. After the omission had been supplied, I turned to her mother and told the story of Isaiah's slip. Quick as a flash and with evident amusement the child exclaimed, "Oh, he mistook a disease for a people!" The inference is plain: the one had groups of apperceptions in her mind that were entirely wanting to the other.

That I may not fail to give the positive side of Isaiah's linguistic attainment, I present here a specimen of his original composition. It is an account of a feature in a well-known game which, so far as I can ascertain, was introduced by colored boys:

"The first boy who I new to play prisoners-base was Charles H. Dorsey And the way you play it is to have equal number on each side of the street and one has to show a lead if he get cought he has to hold out his bans. And if he falls he will say broken bones."

The statement, it will be seen, comprises fifty-five words besides a proper name. Of these, all but four are monosyllables. A peculiar phrasing not unlike that common among deaf-mutes has resulted from the boy's inability to master the subtleties of connecting particles.

The facts here presented are not, in themselves alone, either novel or significant. The question which they raise is, however, fundamental. Are they the sign of inherent deficiency or are they the outcome simply of external conditions? In dealing with Isaiah I recognized that he had come rather late to the elements; this happens also with many white boys, and is by no means an insuperable obstacle to future progress. The circumstance really facilitated my study, as it gave me mental states more positive and well defined than those of younger children. Evidently the problem before me resolved itself into two conditions: the mind of the boy—his environment. The estimates of mind, reading, writing, etc., which formal education employs were evidently not applicable to this individual upon whom the school had left so slight an impress. While I was revolving the matter a new mode of testing his mental powers was suggested. I chanced one evening to be arranging some sets of small color cards in Isaiah's presence. It was evening, the light was dim, and I had difficulty in distinguishing the slightly different tints of the French blues and greens. Whenever I hesitated the boy, who was watching the work with undisguised interest, would instantly pick out the right card. As it was in a range of æsthetic tints which I was certain had had no part in his customary surroundings, I inferred that he had been through color exercises in school. Inquiry proved that I was mistaken; color perception and color distinction were natural powers improved simply by the observation of familiar things. Here too I discovered that a network of associations had arisen, the very condition whose absence had made advance in reading so difficult. His color associations were with natural objects, chiefly fruits and birds—for example, red with an apple, the inside of a melon, a robin's breast; blue with the sky and the jay, yellow with a lemon, and so on. Flowers he seldom mentioned. The reason is obvious. He had a gourmand's taste, and was already quite an experienced hunter. Associations ended with the primitive colors, his ready recognition of shades and hues being a mere matter of immediate perception.

A possible mode of applying the hint thus obtained was suggested by the memory tests described by Prof. Munsterberg in the Psychological Review for January, 1894. The material employed (i. e., colored squares, three and a half centimetres) was easily secured and was of precisely the kind to excite distinct perceptions in Isaiah's mind. Beyond the arrangement of the cards there was, however, no likeness between my experiments and those of Prof. Munsterberg alluded to. The series employed by me were shorter than his, consisting each of ten cards instead of twenty, arranged either for simultaneous or for successive presentation. My subject went through no preliminary training, and no time limit was set for his observation. He was at liberty to look at a series till he thought he knew it, when he proceeded to arrange a duplicate set of the cards in the same order from memory. He had no idea of my purpose but regarded the exercise as a game, a notion which I encouraged by now and then pitting myself against him. Simple as the exercise appears, it afforded a clearer view of Isaiah's mind than speech could possibly have done. Here, at the stage of simple sensation and within the psychic circle that it evolves, he was all alert and responsive. It is difficult for me to convey a clear idea of his awakened activities; I can only sum up what he did in dry statistics, which are meaningless aside from comparison. I should add, with reference to the experiments, that in the absence of apparatus for signaling our expedient was as follows:

At the word now from Isaiah the series presented was covered and the duplicate set of cards placed before him. An assistant, watch in hand, marked the time passed both in examining and placing the cards. I did not caution Isaiah against the use of mnemonic devices, for I judged that he knew none, his range of associations being extremely limited. The experiments were made from twice to three times a week for about five weeks. In three instances, the same series was repeated twice in succession, in every other case a series was presented but once. The summary of results is as follows: Simultaneous presentation, eighteen series, ten colors each; average time for learning each color, five and three fourths seconds (or fifty-seven and a half seconds per series); average time for placing each color, nine and two thirds seconds, or one minute and thirty-six seconds per series; percentage of errors, 36·6. Successive presentations of ten series, ten colors each; average time for observing each color, five and three fifths seconds; average time for placing each color, nine and three fourths seconds; percentage of errors, twenty-nine.

I made occasional essays with aural series—i. e., reading the names of the colors arranged until Isaiah was ready to replace them. Of these I preserved only the following record: Four aural series, ten colors each; average time for learning each color, five and five sevenths seconds; average time for placing each color, six seconds; percentage of errors, fifty.

The experiments having proceeded thus far, I entered upon an educative series. By this means the time for learning a series was reduced to half a minute, and for placing the same, to forty-five seconds, while the percentage of errors fell to sixteen.

In arranging the series the boy's action was slow, and he seemed able to begin indiscrimately at either end or in the middle. Apparently he recalled the colors partly by name; this, however, helped him little, as he did not know the names of shades and neutral tints. I tried having him count, as a means of inhibiting the names when he was examining the cards, but I thought this helped rather than hindered, as the name attached itself to the number that fell to it; in other words, here his mind instantly formed new associations. It would be absurd to compare the results of these experiments with those of Prof. Munsterberg already alluded to. The latter were performed upon adult subjects who were in training for the work, thoroughly possessed of its purposes, and supplied with instruments of precision for signaling, record, etc. Nevertheless, one can hardly fail to note that while the average time required by Isaiah for learning a series was from two to three times that allowed the trained students, his percentage of errors was on the whole less than their average. To realize exactly what the results indicate, one should try to see how many colors of a series he can replace after viewing them less than a minute.

I have given here a record of memory tests that were pursued systematically for a short time. Circumstances soon changed, and I was only able to make an occasional experiment with more complicated material; but one point was established to my satisfaction—namely, that Isaiah was endowed with the germs of mental life, perception, association, and memory. The question remained why these were not active in that most important of all school exercises—reading. The answer is to be found partly in the negroes' quick response to sense impressions. All persons familiar with their habits have noticed this susceptibility, but I believe Mr. R. Meade Bache is the first to bring it to proof in the laboratory.

The results of his experiments, presented in the Psychological Review of September, point very clearly to the conclusion that the negro race is superior to the white in automatic power. Here, I believe, we have the key to Isaiah's success in reproducing an impression received through the senses, and also, in general, to the ease with which children of his race go through the elementary process of learning to read. Speech is a power that comes to most of us unconsciously, and the first stages of reading require little more than the visual recognition of signs that stand for familiar things. But, this stage passed, every word is a generalization, back of which lie traditions, customs, experiences, sentiments, and ideas, which are the heritage of a race. They are the stuff of the mind transmitted from generation to generation through the myriad channels of family, of social, of school, of church, and of business life. It is obvious that to a race wanting in our own experiences a large part of our vocabulary must be meaningless. Analogous experiences, of course, give insight into a foreign tongue, but here the colored child is at a peculiar disadvantage. The traditions of African savagery, even if they had reached him, offer no likeness to the history of the Anglo-Saxon. Slavery was a state with laws and customs and ceremonies bearing certain resemblances to our own, but the negro who has passed through this state to the freedom of American citizenship is, as it were, a man without ancestral history. Instead of cherishing his past and trying to impress its memories and ideals upon his children, he seeks rather to destroy them. He reacts against his past and inhibits it. On the other hand, he has not yet become sufficiently possessed of our civilization to impart its mother-lore to his children. The absence of social restraints, either in the form of crude superstitions or of complex sentiments and ideals, explains perhaps the frequent outbursts of ferocious passions on the part of negroes; the same condition insures also a primitive state of Nature in their children. Scientific research affords proof of the fundamental unity of mind, but it gives no less decisive proof of differences due to ancestry and training. The negro child is psychologically different from the white child. In automatic power he is superior, but in the power of abstraction, of judgment, and analysis he is decidedly inferior. This fact must be recognized in the school training. In purpose and in liberal provision the education of the negro should be the same as that of white children. In detail and method it should be adjusted to the racial plane on which he stands.

But to return to Isaiah. Vacation having ended, he was sent back to school to resume the rehearsal of lessons that conveyed no meaning to his mind. Fortunately, he made a venture for himself and secured the drummer's place in a band; this occupied all his spare time and afforded an outlet for his automatism, with a pecuniary advantage besides. At the end of the year my persuasions added to his strong personal desire prevailed, and he was allowed to quit vain repetitions and go to work. His place in the industrial world is a humble one, for, in spite of the fact that his parents have been willing to give him much more than the average time at school, he has not been raised above the rank of unskilled laborers. This it seems to me is unpardonable. A youth in whom perception, memory, and simple judgment are active might, I am confident, in ten years have been raised a little higher in the scale of independent being. If he had been at Hampton or Tuskegee, the result would have been different, for in these he would have been educated through experiences, social and industrial. In the public schools within his reach he must drill over the elements, to the arrest of development, or go forward to abstract thought of which his mind was incapable. I have dwelt upon a particular case because it is a psychological type. It confirms what the laboratory indicates—namely, if races are to be developed by formal education, its processes must be conformed to their conditions, not vice versa.