Amidst the violent racism prevalent at the turn of the twentieth
century, African American cultural elites, struggling to articulate
a positive black identity, developed a middle-class ideology of
racial uplift. Insisting that they were truly representative of the
race's potential, black elites espoused an ethos of self-help and
service to the black masses and distinguished themselves from the
black majority as agents of civilization; hence the phrase
'uplifting the race.'
A central assumption of racial uplift ideology was that African
Americans' material and moral progress would diminish white racism.
But Kevin Gaines argues that, in its emphasis on class distinctions
and patriarchal authority, racial uplift ideology was tied to
pejorative notions of racial pathology and thus was limited as a
force against white prejudice.
Drawing on the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Alice
Dunbar-Nelson, Hubert H. Harrison, and others, Gaines focuses on
the intersections between race and gender in both racial uplift
ideology and black nationalist thought, showing that the meaning of
uplift was intensely contested even among those who shared its
aims. Ultimately, elite conceptions of the ideology retreated from
more democratic visions of uplift as social advancement, leaving a
legacy that narrows our conceptions of rights, citizenship, and