This article surveys African Americans encounter with material goods from the end of the Civil War through the end of World War II. Additionally it uses Ebony magazine as a case study to illuminate blacks’ understanding and use of material possessions in the developing fight for equality in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Central to the argument is that blacks have long understood the difference between materialism and a materially-intensive life and have used goods as a way to demonstrate their desire to be equal in every way with their fellow citizens. Hence, consumption becomes a means of political and social activism on par with other better-known efforts such as the battle for voting rights or an end to racial discrimination.
Each day when you see us black folk upon the dusty land of the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem.—Richard Wright
In 1917, Henry Watson, a successful black farmer in Georgia, drove his daughter into town in his new car. There were few cars on the roads in 1917 so they still drew considerable attention. The sight of a black man driving his own car was cause for dangerous notice, as Watson learned. Incensed at the sight of an African American operating a fine automobile, a group of white men forced Watson and his daughter from the car at gunpoint. They then poured gasoline on the car, set it on fire, and warned Watson: “From now on, you niggers walk into town, or use that old mule if you want to stay in this city.”1
Similar anecdotes abound in African American history. Experiences like these cogently illustrate the role of material goods as a racial battleground where whites and blacks wrestled to define the roles of goods in blacks’ lives. The racial hierarchy forming in the aftermath of slavery led many whites to ask (and to teach their children to ask), “If you aren’t any better than a nigger, who are you better than?” and to look for hard evidence of their superiority in the division of material goods.2 Whites were torn between the need to sell to blacks and the desire to restrict their access to goods that spoke of status or comfort. Blacks, in turn, correctly identified access to goods as both a fundamental tenet of equality and a concrete measure of status and place. Yet, as historian Leon Litwack observed, “For the Negro to get ‘out of place’ was to aspire to the same goals and possessions whites coveted, and whites often found such aspirations by blacks both distasteful and unnatural.”3
This article begins by surveying the racial contest over material goods from the Civil War through World War II. Central to the examination are blacks’ encounters with goods and their own internal group struggles over the significance of objects. I will argue that, though they were not the primary arena in the decades-long struggle for African American rights, material goods were a key means of communicating aspirations and showing that blacks were equal to whites in every possible way.
This history will, in turn, be used to reframe an important case, the founding of Ebony magazine by John Johnson immediately after the Second World War. Ebony, the most successful magazine in African American history, provides a provocative lens through which to glimpse blacks’ understanding of material goods in the early stages of the civil rights movement.4 Yet, because it was the leading lifestyle guide for the growing black middle class, Ebony has often drawn fire from within the African American community, as well as from social critics, for promoting materialism and trivializing the struggle for race equality by reducing it to the pursuit of goods. Too often scholars and contemporary critics of all racial backgrounds have fallen prey to what I would call a white-oriented view of consumption in which blacks’ choices are described...