Many have associated the phrase “Black is beautiful” with the civil rights movement and black nationalism in the 1960s and 70s when the world was introduced to iconic leaders such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Marcus Garvey.
Decades later, the world would begin a Black is Beautiful movement that, till date, seeks to do away with internalized racism. In other words, the movement, which has been highlighted in the writings of black leaders like Steve Biko, debunks the notion that natural features of black people – hair, skin colour, and facial features – are ugly.
This appreciation of the inherent beauty of black people, however, began with the words of John Swett Rock, an African-American leader, physician and orator who is believed to have been behind the phrase “Black is Beautiful”.
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One of America’s first black physicians and lawyers and an advocate of civil rights, Rock was a well-known figure in the years leading up to and during the Civil War. He would later make history as the first African American to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States.
But what he has been largely celebrated for is his 1858 famous speech, in which he is said to have become the first person – and perhaps, the last until the civil rights movement of the next century – to assert that black is beautiful, writes BlackHistoryNow.
Born to free parents in 1825 in Elsinboro Township, Salem County, Rock pursued a formal education at a period when it was illegal in most states for blacks to read. By 27, Rock had already worked as a teacher, dentist and physician.
While teaching at a black grammar school in Salem during the years 1844–1848, Rock wanted to become a physician, so he apprenticed himself to two white doctors, Quinton Gibbon and Jacob Sharpe.
In 1848, he applied to medical school, but his application was rejected due to his race. He, therefore, started studying dentistry on his own. Having obtained a dentistry certificate, Rock opened a private practice in Philadelphia in 1850, but would finally gain admission to medical school.
In 1852, he graduated from Philadelphia’s American Medical College and received his M.D. degree at the age of 26, becoming one of the first African Americans to attain a degree in medicine.
After getting married to Philadelphia native Catherine Bowers that same year, the couple moved to Boston in 1853, where Rock opened another practice in dentistry and medicine, and began treating sick fugitive slaves while being a member of the abolitionist organization, the Boston Vigilance Committee.
Soon, Rock emerged as one of the leading black abolitionists and in 1856, he was recorded as asking the Massachusetts legislature to delete the word “coloured” from state documents.
Two years later, on March 5, 1858, a 33-year-old Rock would deliver one of his most famous and powerful speeches which largely praised the beauty of black people and would inspire the term “black is beautiful”.
“…The prejudice which some white men have, or affect to have, against my colour gives me no pain. If any man does not fancy my colour, that is his business, and I shall not meddle with it. I shall give myself no trouble because he lacks good taste. If he judges my intellectual capacity by my colour, he certainly cannot expect much profundity, for it is only skin deep, and is really of no very great importance to anyone but myself.
“…How very few coloured men are encouraged in their trades or business! Our young men see this, and become disheartened. In this country, where money is the great sympathetic nerve which ramifies society, and has a ganglia in every man’s pocket, a man is respected in proportion to his success in business. When the avenues to wealth are opened to us, we will then become educated and wealthy, and then the roughest looking coloured man that you ever saw, or ever will see, will be pleasanter than the harmonies of Orpheus, and black will be a very pretty colour,” excerpts of his speech read.
Rock was speaking at Boston’s Fanueil Hall as part of the annual Crispus Attucks Day observance organized by Boston’s black abolitionists in response to the Dred Scott decision, that held that blacks could not be U.S. citizens.
Poor health would later force Rock to give up his dental and medical practices, but that did not stop him from pursuing a career as a lawyer. In 1861, he opened his own law practice, and his offices soon became a “favourite haunt of abolitionist activists and politicians.”
“As a lawyer, Rock at first expressed impatience at the slow pace of newly elected President Lincoln’s actions on behalf of Blacks, but when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he changed his mind. When Congress authorized the creation of all-black regiments to help fight the south, Rock became one of the main recruiters for Massachusetts regiments,” writes BlackHistoryNow.
In 1865, Rock was admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, making him the first black man to receive a license to argue cases before the high court. Historians say his admission was a departure from the Dred Scott decision that had denied citizenship rights to African-Americans less than a decade earlier.
Rock would, however, die of tuberculosis a year later in Boston, at the age of 41, without ever trying a case. His admission to the bar, nevertheless, is “a point in time that should be marked on a calendar, but isn’t. It was an important symbol of the changes that were to come,” said Christopher Brooks, a professor and writer of “John S. Rock: Teacher, Healer, Counselor,” a biography for high school students.
Touching on why Rock’s story is largely unknown today, Brooks said: “I think part of the reason for that is because he died so young.
“Another reason is that, unlike so many others, his legacy is not tied directly to the emotional issue of slavery. For John Rock, it was about something even greater. It was about working within the rules and using the constitution as a tool to pursue justice.”
Below is Rock’s famous 1858 speech:
Ladies and Gentlemen: You will not expect a lengthened speech from me to-night. My health is too poor to allow me to indulge much in speechmaking. But I have not been able to resist the temptation to unite with you in this demonstra-tion of respect for some of my noble but misguided ancestors.
White Americans have taken great pains to try to prove that we are cowards. We are often insulted with the assertion, that if we had had the courage of the Indians or the white man, we would never have submitted to be slaves. I ask if Indians and white men have never been slaves? The white man tested the Indian’s courage here when he had his organized armies, his battlegrounds, his places of retreat, with everything to hope for and everything to lose.
The position of the African slave has been very different. Seized a prisoner of war, unarmed, bound hand and foot, and conveyed to a distant country among what to him were worse than cannibals; brutally beaten, halfstarved, closely watched by armed men, with no means of knowing their own strength or the strength of their enemies, with no weapons, and without a probability of success. But if the white man will take the trouble to fight the black man in Africa or in Hayti, and fight him as fair as the black man will fight him there—if the black man does not come off victor, I am deceived in his prowess. But, take a man, armed or unarmed, from his home, his country, or his friends, and place him among savages, and who is he that would not make good his retreat? “Discretion is the better part of valor,” but for a man to resist where he knows it will destroy him, shows more fool-hardiness than courage. There have been many Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Americans enslaved in Africa, but I have never heard that they successfully resisted any government. They always resort to running indispensables. The courage of the Anglo-Saxon is best illustrated in his treatment of the negro. A score or two of them can pounce upon a poor negro, tie and beat him, and then call him a coward because he submits. Many of their most brilliant victories have been achieved in the same manner. But the greatest battles which they have fought have been upon paper.
We can easily account for this; their trumpeter is dead. He died when they used to be exposed for sale in the Roman market, about the time that Cicero cautioned his friend Atticus not to buy them, on account of their stupidity. A little more than half a century ago, this race, in connection with their Celtic neighbors, who have long been considered (by themselves, of course,) as the bravest soldiers in the world, so far forgot themselves as to attack a few cowardly, stupid negro slaves, who, according to their accounts, had not sense enough to go to bed. And what was the result? Why, sir, the negroes drove them out from the island like so many sheep, and they have never dared to show their faces, except with hat in hand.
Our true and tried friend, Rev. Theodore Parker said, in his speech at the State House, a few weeks since, that “the stroke of the axe would have settled the question long ago, but the black man would not strike.” Mr. Parker makes a very low estimate of the courage of his race, if he means that one, two or three millions of those ignorant and cowardly black slaves could, without means, have brought to their knees five, ten, or twenty millions of intelligent brave white men, backed up by a rich oligarchy. But I know of no one who is more familiar with the true character of the Anglo-Saxon race than Mr. Parker. I will not dispute this point with him, but I will thank him or any one else to tell us how it could have been done. His remark calls to my mind the day which is to come, when one shall chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight. But when he says that “the black man would not strike,” I am prepared to say that he does us great injustice. The black man is not a coward. The history of the bloody struggles for freedom in Hayti, in which the blacks whipped the French and the English, and gained their independence, in spite of the perfidy of that villainous First Consul, will be a lasting refutation of the malicious aspersions of our enemies. The history of the struggles for the liberty of the U.S. ought to silence every American calumniator. I have learned that even so late as the Texan war, a number of black men were found silly enough to offer themselves as living sacrifices for our country’s shame. A gentleman who delivered a lecture before the New York Legislature, a few years since, whose name I do not now remember, but whose language I give with some precision, said, “In the Revolution, colored soldiers fought side by side with you in your struggles for liberty, and there is not a battle-field from Maine to Georgia that has not been crimsoned with their blood, and whitened with their bones.” In 1814, a bill passed the Legislature of New York, accepting the services of 2000 colored volunteers. Many black men served under Com. McDonough when he conquered on lake Champlain. Many were in the battles of Plattsburgh and Sackett’s Harbor, and General Jackson called out colored troops from Louisiana and Alabama, and in a solemn proclamation attested to their fidelity and courage.
The white man contradicts himself who says, that if he were in our situation, he would throw off the yoke. Thirty millions of white men of this proud Caucasian race are at this moment held as slaves, and bought and sold with horses and cattle. The iron heel of oppression grinds the masses of all the European races to the dust. They suffer every kind of oppression, and no one dares to open his mouth to protest against it. Even in the Southern portion of this boasted land of liberty, no white man dares advocate so much of the Declaration of Independence as declares that “all men are created free and equal, and have an inalienable right to life, liberty.”
White men have no room to taunt us with tamely submitting. If they were black men they would work wonders; but, as white men, they can do nothing. “O, Consistency, thou art a jewel!”
Now, it would not be surprising if the brutal treatment which we have received for the past two centuries should have crushed our spirits. But this is not the case. Nothing but a superior force keeps us down. And when I see the slaves rising up by hundreds annually, in the majesty of human nature, bidding defiance to every slave code and its penalties, making the issue Canada or death, and that too while they are closely watched by paid men armed with pistols, clubs and bowie-knives, with the army and navy of this great Model Republic arrayed against them, I am disposed to ask if the charge of cowardice does not come with an ill-grace.
But some men are so steeped in folly and imbecility; so lost to all feelings of their own littleness; so destitute of principle, and so regardless of humanity, that they dare attempt to destroy everything which exists in opposition to their interests or opinions which their narrow comprehensions cannot grasp.
We ought not to come here simply to honor those brave men who shed their blood for freedom, or to protest against the Dred Scott decision, but to take counsel of each other, and to enter into new vows of duty. Our fathers fought nobly for freedom, but they were not victorious. They fought for liberty, but they got slavery. The white man was benefitted, but the black man was injured. I do not envy the white American the little liberty which he enjoys. It is his right, and he ought to have it. I wish him success, though I do not think he deserves it. But I would have all men free.
We have had much sad experience in this country, and it would be strange indeed if we do not profit by some of the lessons which we have so dearly paid for. Sooner or later, the clashing of arms will be heard in this country, and the black man’s services will be needed: 150,000 freemen capable of bearing arms, and not all cowards and fools, and three quarters of a million of slaves, wild with the enthusiasm caused by the dawn of the glorious opportunity of being able to strike a genuine blow for freedom, will be a power which white men will be “bound to respect.” Will the blacks fight? Of course they will.
The black man will never be neutral. He could not if he would, and he would not if he could. Will he fight for this country, right or wrong? This the common sense of every one answers; and when the time comes, and come it will, the black man will give an intelligent answer. Judge Taney may outlaw us; Caleb Cushing may show the depravity of his heart by abusing us; and this wicked government may oppress us; but the black man will live when Judge Taney, Caleb Cushing and this wicked government are no more. White men may despise, ridicule, slander and abuse us; they may seek as they always have done to divide us, and make us feel degraded; but no man shall cause me to turn my back upon my race. With it I will sink or swim.
The prejudice which some white men have, or affect to have, against my color gives me no pain. If any man does not fancy my color, that is his business, and I shall not meddle with it. I shall give myself no trouble because he lacks good taste. If he judges my intellectual capacity by my color, he certainly cannot expect much profundity, for it is only skin deep, and is really of no very great importance to any one but myself. I will not deny that I admire the talents and noble characters of many white men. But I cannot say that I am particularly pleased with their physical appearance. If old mother nature had held out as well as she commenced, we should, probably, have had fewer varieties in the races. When I contrast the fine tough muscular system, the beautiful, rich color, the full broad features, and the gracefully frizzled hair of the negro, with the delicate physical organization, wan color, sharp features and lank hair of the Caucasian, I am inclined to believe that when the white man was created, nature was pretty well exhausted-but determined to keep up appearances, she pinched up his features, and did the best she could under the circumstances. (Great laughter.)
I would have you understand, that I not only love my race, but am pleased with my color; and while many colored persons may feel degraded by being called negroes, and wish to be classed among other races more favored, I shall feel it my duty, my pleasure and my pride, to concentrate my feeble efforts in elevating to a fair position a race to which I am especially identified by feelings and by blood.
My friends, we can never become elevated until we are true to ourselves. We can come here and make brilliant speeches, but our field of duty is elsewhere. Let us go to work—each man in his place, determined to do what he can for himself and his race. Let us try to carry out some of the resolutions which we have made, and are so fond of making. If we do this, friends will spring up in every quarter, and where we least expect them. But we must not rely on them. They cannot elevate us. Whenever the colored man is elevated, it will be by his own exertions. Our friends can do what many of them are nobly doing, assist us to remove the obstacles which prevent our elevation, and stimulate the worthy to persevere.
The colored man who, by dint of perseverance and industry, educates and elevates himself, prepares the way for others, gives character to the race, and hastens the day of general emancipation. While the negro who hangs around the corners of the streets, or lives in the grog-shops or by gambling, or who has no higher ambition than to serve, is by his vocation forging fetters for the slave, and is “to all intents and purposes” a curse to his race. It is true, considering the circumstances under which we have been placed by our white neighbors, we have a right to ask them not only to cease to oppress us, but to give us that encourage-ment which our talents and industry may merit. When this is done, they will see our minds expand, and our pockets filled with rocks. How very few colored men are encouraged in their trades or business! Our young men see this, and become disheartened. In this country, where money is the great sympathetic nerve which ramifies society, and has a ganglia in every man’s pocket, a man is respected in proportion to his success in business. When the avenues to wealth are opened to us, we will then become educated and wealthy, and then the roughest looking colored man that you ever saw, or ever will see, will be pleasanter than the harmonies of Orpheus, and black will be a very pretty color. It will make our jargon, wit—our words, oracles; flattery will then take the place of slander, and you will find no prejudice in the Yankee whatever. We do not expect to occupy a much better position than we now do, until we shall have our educated and wealthy men, who can wield a power that cannot be misunderstood. Then, and not till then, will the tongue of slander be silenced, and the lip of prejudice sealed. Then, and not till then, will we be able to enjoy true equality, which can exist only among peers.