African-American History

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African-Americans have experienced a cultural paradox, or a contradiction. For many years, until World War II, they were largely excluded from the official history of the United States. Not in the sense that they went unmentioned; after all, one can hardly conceive a history of the United States that does not deal with slavery, abolitionism, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. But it was certainly possible to talk about blacks largely as objects, not agents, as primitives, as an unfortunate population whose presence was largely an annoyance, a misfortune, or a tragedy. Blacks were usually presented as a people without a history in Africa, and they were presented as contributing nothing historically important to American life. Indeed, Western slavery had brought blacks into the loop of civilization and so was something of a perverse gift.

This neglect, this denial, however, did not stop blacks from being an object of fascination for whites, with stage minstrelsy, with books and commentaries about race and the meaning of racial characteristics and traits, with ritualized lynching and acts of terrorism, with laws against miscegenation and socializing between the races, and against blacks exerting any sort of political presence in the land. Their being a people without a history made them, in the eyes of whites, a people unworthy of respect, which whites reinforced by making them a people without power, but they were not, by any means, a people devoid of interest. Indeed, they had a deviant allure, largely because what whites saw in black people was what they feared to see in themselves. As Ralph Ellison put it, “The white American has charged the Negro American with being without past or tradition (something which strikes the white man with a nameless horror), just as he himself has been so charged by European and American critics with a nostalgia for the stability once typical of European cultures.…”

It was the abolitionist movement in the United States that generated the first histories of blacks. One of the earliest was the white abolitionist and children’s writer Lydia Maria Child’s An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, first published in 1833, tracing the history of slavery, the general status of the condition of blacks in the United States, their past in Africa, and their contributions to world civilization. It is largely a moral and political defense of the slaves’ right to be free based in good measure on an assessment of their history. So controversial was the subject at the time that Child wrote in her preface: “I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken; but though I expect ridicule and censure, I cannot fear them.”

In 1836 the abolitionist Robert Benjamin Lewis published what is credited with being the first black history by a black: Light and Truth: Collected From the Bible and Ancient and Modern History, Containing the Universal History of the Colored Man and Indian Race, From the Creation of the World to the Present Time. This was followed in 1841 by the fugitive slave J. W. C. Pennington’s A Textbook of the Origin and History of the Colored People. Yet another black abolitionist writer, William C. Nell, wrote The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution in 1855. William Wells Brown, who wrote the first black American novel, play, and travel book, produced The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements in 1863, followed by The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity (1867) and The Rising Son; or The Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race (1874). (Incidentally, Benjamin Quarles’s Black Abolitionists, published in 1969, remains a very solid account of black involvement in the abolitionist movement.)

The first truly professional black historian, or the first black to write something like a professional history of African-Americans, was George Washington Williams, with his two-volume work History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880, published in 1882. The American Negro Academy, founded in 1897, with members including William H. Crogman, Alain Locke, Carter G. Woodson, James Weldon Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois, was something like a combination of salon and think tank. Its members made presentations at the meetings, and although they were not exclusively devoted to history, it was a major topic. After all, Johnson was to write a history of Harlem, and Locke a history of black music; Du Bois and Crogman were to write histories of African-Americans, and Woodson was to become the father of Negro history.

Woodson, who, like Du Bois, earned a doctorate from Harvard, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and the Journal of Negro History four months later. He introduced the idea of Negro history into the mainstream of the culture in 1926 by starting Negro History Week, which became Black History Month in 1976. He also published a number of books dealing with African and African-American history.

Historically black colleges were important in developing the study of black history, not only by introducing courses in the subject but also by having faculty members who devoted themselves to it: August Meier, Rayford Logan, Alrutheus Taylor, and Charles H. Wesley, among others.