Mary Church Terrell

An If or Two - 1898

Mary Church Terrell
January 01, 1898
Print friendly


An If Or Two.

If there were fewer ifs in the various ethics and ologies of life, there would be fewer problems to solve and smaller difficulties to confront. But, wherever we turn, an If of greater or less magnitude stares us in the face and mockingly reminds us that before we attain unto the perfect civilization for which we nobly drive and heroically struggle, this Hypothetical Highness must first be overcome and removed. It might be stated as an axiom that everything and everybody has its if. If this were not so, then the other wo'd be true is the daily burden of our song. Neither is it a great misfortune that so much time is spent discussing this tiny word “if” that is such a tremendous warrior for blasting hopes and dealing despair. The first step toward achievement is a full clear knowledge of just the if that stands in the way of success. Resistance and defeat of it are the next steps.

As Woman In the Home is no exception to this rule of “if” let us discuss the most formidable ones that prevent her from accomplishing as much as she might for its elevation, not for the sake of picking flaws and exposing weakness merely, but in order to devise ways and means for overcoming them. Let us make a diagnosis of the maladies that impair the mental and moral health of the home not to frighten and annoy the patient, but to arouse her to a sense of danger and prescribe a remedy for her ills.

If women realized more fully and more keenly the great responsibility resting upon them, they would accomplish far more for the elevation and purification of the home than it is possible at present for them to effect. How conscientiously, how indefatigably, how successfully women work, when once they see the necessity for action, the numerous reforms that have been inaugurated thro their efforts and their efforts alone will abundantly and eloquently testify. It is because many women feel that they can accomplish little or no good in the world, unless they undertake something great and grand of a public nature that they utterly fail to wield the influence at home which it is their privilege and their duty to exert. It is in the home that woman’s work is most needed and is often most effective. Society is to be purified, rights of man to be respected first of all in the home. If the moral standard is to be raised at all, it must be by her who sows the first seeds of virtue in the plastic mind of the child, where there are no weeds and thistles to choke and strangle them, ere they can spring forth and bear fruit.

If mothers, teachers and friends did not forget how susceptible children are to influence wielded by those to whom they look for guidance and instruction they would not so often neglect to drop the right word at the right place, would not fail to raise their voices against even the appearance of evil, and would not hesitate to rebuke wrong wherever it lifted its horrid front. If parents realised how tenacious are the memories of children, they would not so frequently indulge in jokes bordering on the risque and forbidden with such hearty relish for them, as to what a child’s appetite for similar experiences. In short, if we all realized how easily character is made or marred, how careful we should be of the conversations of the home, where woman is the presiding genius, where the most potent influences are exerted on the most susceptible minds that can possibly be moulded. If the facts in the case could be obtained, the downfall of many a girl and boy could be directly traced to objectionable jokes and anecdotes related by thoughtless parents or friends.

The surest swiftest way of vanquishing vice is to inaugurate a vigorous conversational crusade against it in the home. Bitter invectives and detailed descriptions of the road to ruin, almost alluring in their vivid realism should form no part of this school of morals. Not by platitudes and homilies, nauseating in the tediousness and frequency with which they occur, should women undertake to elevate the moral standard of their households, and through them that of the nation. They should be careful to introduce proper topics of conversation, and insist upon it that no one else should, in the presence of the young, at least, broach any subject for discussion that tends to degrade and corrupt. If newspaper horrors and neighborhood scandals were not debated at such length and in such detail around our friends we should have more time, greater inclination and more strength to talk about the new discoveries and discuss the burning questions of the day.

How easily might correct principles of life be inculcated and false impressions of life be removed if guardians of the young always championed unequivocally in season and out the right, and refused to countenance wrong, however great the temptation to compromise might be. Stand for principle, let policy care for itself, should be the watchword of every home in the land. If each queen of the household would purify her own domain by tabooing within it conversations that sow the seeds of evil, since they open the eyes of the young to the manifold hypocrisies and sins of the world, since they fix the minds of adults on the lower rather than the higher things of life, the day of national purity and integrity would not be long in dawning. It requires no prophet to forecast the future when in every household of the land the temptation to roll the latest scandal as a choice morsel under the tongue is resisted, when the desire to rehearse the mistake and relate the downfall of our neighbors is never granted. At our fireside, around the table in the drawing room how much might be done to eliminate evil and inspire good by that unruly member the tongue.

And now another if of ugly aspect and threatening manner confronts us. If there were a greater effort in the home, if there were a more united determination in our churches and schools to increase the self respect of the race, a higher, stronger, purer manhood and womanhood would soon be developed among us. The habit of ridiculing the race as a whole is a mistake common in many of our most enlightened households. If the vices of the race were cited less and its virtues discussed more by friends, many accusations could be easily removed and a higher estimate of its worth be incontrovertibly established. Instill unto the minds of children, impress constantly upon men and women that they belong to a vicious, depraved and illiterate race and there is little incentive for self-improvement, since there is almost nothing on which to base the hope of success.

Faults and vices common to all races just emerging from the darkness of ignorance and the curse of oppression, are openly declared to be peculiar to the negro alone, facts and history to the contrary, not withstanding. Let a child hear constantly that he belongs to a race vicious, ignorant and with but few redeeming traits and it is impossible to develop in him that self respect which is both an incentive to effort, and safeguard against wrong. Throttle the pride and crush the spirit of an individual, if you wish to extinguish the divine spark by which manhood and womanhood are kindled into flame.

And yet this wholesale destruction of the self respect of the negro is constantly going on in the home, in the school, in our churches, through the medium of parents, teachers and preachers and journalists, as if all with one accord were conspiring to force the negro as low in the scale of humanity as it is possible for human agency to effect. In urging parents and leaders to do all in their power to increase the self respect of the race, let no one suppose that I would advise them to indulge in fulsome flattery which, far from doing good, would do the race incalculable harm. But nothing is more destructive to the progress and fatal to the reputation of a race than the wholesale slander now leveled at the freedmen obliged to contend against the most unreasonable prejudice and the most cruel proscriptions under which a people ever groaned. Let our women see to it that they increase the self respect of the members of their own households, and the reform for which there is a crying need will soon be inaugurated. If mothers fully realized how their words and opinions affect their little ones, whose success in life means their happiness and whose failure means their woe, we should hear around the fireside and at our boards more about the possibilities of the negro and less about his incapacity, more about their virtue and less about his vices which are exaggerated to a nauseating degree by his foes.

Another if that affects the mental health of the child now confronts us. If mothers understood how much good they could do by making the home an annex to the school much of the friction between these training houses of the young would be eliminated. If mothers understood how much they could whet the child’s appetite for knowledge by taking an interest in his schoolwork, the number of children who study because they want to learn, and not because they are forced to, wo’d be greatly increased. In too many of our houses, the only object in asking a child about the work of the school seems to be to obtain facts upon which to base criticism both of the teachers and the course of study. Under such circumstances, the child becomes disgusted with his teachers, feels contempt for the whole school system, and [takes] but a languid interest in his lessons, or he puts a very low estimate upon the judgement of his parents. In either case an irreparable injury is inflicted in the very place whence good might and should emanate, and by the very persons whose constant care should be to assist the teacher in his efforts to develop the mind and form the character of our children. Unfortunately many of our boys and girls come from houses where they can receive no assistance of a mental nature, owing to the lack of scholastic training enjoyed by their parents. Even under such circumstances children may be greatly aided in their pursuit of knowledge, of the parents will only take an active interest in their work at school. If women wish to do their full duty, then they must throw the influence of the home religiously and irrevocably on the side of the school; they must at all times and under all circumstances possible give unmistakable proof of their sympathy with the efforts of the teacher.

Still another if must be considered in this attack upon the little foxes that spoil the precious vines of the home. If women were more selfish by nature, it is quite possible that they would not so flagrantly neglect the duty they owe themselves. For their own progress and improvement the vast majority of women make little or no provision, and are thus not only unjust to themselves, but to their families as well. The mother who deprives her children of the benefit always derived from coming in contact with those who are constantly broadening their minds by study and reading does them an injury for which nothing can compensate.

The woman who allows her mind to be completely absorbed by her house hold cares, and permits her time to be entirely consumed by them can never wield the influence in the home, which the sacred position she occupies bids her exert. It is just as necessary to the mental health of a child that the mother find time to feed his mind as it is for his physical welfare that she should look carefully after the food that nourishes his body.

If every women considered it to be her duty to spend only a half day twice a year in an art gallery or a picture show for the purpose of cultivating a taste for art, feasting her eyes on the beautiful, and refreshing her mental and spiritual being, not only would great benefit accrue to herself, but to the various members of her household as well. With such a woman at the head of a family, it wo’d be impossible for the tone of a home to be anything but pure and lofty. By the example of such a mother, children would be taught to open their eyes both to the beauties of nature and art to gleam information from every available source, would learn to find pleasure in the pursuit of the higher rather than the lower things of life. The duties of women and the home are already so numerous and exacting that it seems like a cruel imposition to increase them one jot or one little. And yet it is just as true that women can not live by bread alone as it is that men can not thrive on this limited diet. But how much time for reading, and visiting art galleries has a woman with the cares of a household resting upon her, inquires a multitude of my sisters who make themselves slaves to the onerous but necessary duties of the home. A great many more minutes for self culture might be captured by all of us than the majority of women think, if they would only determine to cease starving the mind by ministering to the higher nature for the sake both of themselves and their families. In fusing a little system into one’s daily duties works wonders for saving and therefore for gaining time. When the great benefit accruing there from to the homes is considered failure to do our duty in this regard becomes a serious matter indeed. Progressive, ambitious children are rarely the products of homes where mothers are narrow, and fail to give object lessons in one’s duty to improve the mind wherever, whenever and however because again women thoroughly interested in the welfare of the race can do much toward improving it by devising ways and means for cultivating the taste and educating the morals not only of their own children but of those whose surroundings tend to deaden or dwarf every ambition they may naturally possess.

Childrens clubs, composed of little ones living in the same neighborhood, might be formed so as to teach them how to amuse themselves correctly, encourage them to read and tell their playmates the stories that have interested them. This juvenile band might occasionally be taken in a body to visit the various places of interest about the city where they could see and learn something new, so that when they came together in their play they will know how to entertain each other pleasurably and profitably. Having something in common in which they are all interested they will be eager to exchange ideas and views. In these clubs, children of proper age and sufficient training might be encouraged to write little stories to be read to their playmates. Our boys and girls have almost no incentive to learn outside of the pressure bro’t to bear in the schoolroom, so that these little neighborhood literaries should be made a medium thro which our geniuses may be discovered and encouraged to develop this talent. If women only realized how much they might do for unfortunate children in their own homes, many a little waif wo’d be rescued as a brand from the burning who without their help would go to destruction. Neglect to provide for the amusement and recreation of children in their own homes has caused the downfall of many a boy and girl of whom better things had been confidently expected. Forced to find outside of their homes what should have been supplied under the parental roof they fall on easy prey to temptations which they have neither the sense nor the strength to resist.

Thus we see how manifold are the duties of conscientious women in the home. Neither affrighted nor discouraged they will assume the great responsibilities assigned to them, strong in the assurance that He who guides the destinies of nations will not uphold wisdom and strength from those to whom is entrusted the fate of so precious an institution as the home. To the perseverance and to the sacrifices of our women can much of the progress and many of the achievements of the race be attributed. Having accomplished so much despite their ignorance and the many obstacles they were obliged to surmount in the past, how hopefully and confidently should we look forward to the future.

If the progress of the race is contingent upon unity, upon women devolves the duty of teaching it in the home. Lips taught to lisp the oath of allegiance in babyhood will rarely violate it in old age. If the sterling principles of virtue and integrity are to be developed in the race, women are to inculcate them in the home. Great truths are to be proclaimed not by the roar of the the thunder but in the still small voice of the home. If the race is to occupy the high spiritual and intellectual plane toward which it is rapidly bending its steps, women must iterate the tone of the home by keeping the conversations pure and free from guile. If the self respect of the race is to be developed, foundations must be laid in the home, children must learn that they belong to a race possessed of both virtues and vices like the others who have ascended higher in the scale of civilization than they have thus far been enabled to attain. If they are humiliated by hearing that they are descendants of slaves let our women teach them the proud Anglo Saxon once bowed under a yoke as galling as that under which our African progenitors groaned.

If the mental progress of the race is to be accelerated, the influence of the home must be thrown on the side of the school.

If women would discharge one of the most sacred duties they owe the home, they must constantly broaden their information and deepen their views so as to set a good example and be profitable companions to the dear ones at home.

If the great mass of the more unfortunate members of the race is to be reached and cultivated, it must be through the nurturing efforts of women in their work with the little waifs and strays for whom we are so largely responsible. In considering the laws of heredity alone we are forced to the conclusion that woman’s power for good is without limited, that it can be neither measured nor weighed by any standard that the finite mind can suggest. If mercy, charity, integrity and virtue are to prevail, they will triumph over evil largely thro’ the work in the home. If the ifs that now resist our efforts for good and mock our struggle for right are to be routed, they must be vanquished largely through the determination and perseverance of woman in the home.

Let us then press forward toward the goal for which we strive since

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years

Is hanging breathless on our fate.

Terrell, Mary Church. 1898. “An If or Two." Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress.