African-American History

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There has always been a populist strain running through some black historiography that largely consists of the idea that the redemption of the African-American mind, as well as the political salvation of the African-American, will come with a proper understanding of a history that has not only been denied by whites but distorted and stolen. A variety of writers would fit in this school. They include J. A. Rogers (Nature Knows No Color-Line and Sex and Race), George G. M. James (Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy Is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy, a work that directly inspired Martin Bernal’s two-volume Black Athena), John Henrik Clarke, St. Clair Drake (Black Folk Here and There: An Essay in History and Anthropology), Chancellor Williams, Afrocentric and nationalist-oriented scholars like Molefi Asante and Tony Martin, and works like the Nation of Islam’s highly controversial The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. The best historical accounts of this school of black history are Wilson J. Moses’s Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History and Clarence Walker’s We Can’t Go Home Again.

There are today far too many able historians, both white and black, who write about black history, from Barbara Fields to Robin D. G. Kelley, from Darlene Clark Hine to Patricia Sullivan, for anyone to be able to pick out just a few. What follows is my list of what I think are classic or essential works.

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois (1903; many editions), is probably the most influential or, at least, most discussed book published by a black American intellectual in the twentieth century, although The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse and a few others might rate closely being this masterwork. It is not strictly a history of African-Americans; indeed, it is almost a synthesis of forms: biography, fiction, historical and economic analysis, and autobiography. One might think of some other Du Bois books that are more strictly historical, like The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 and Black Reconstruction , but none seem to have captured the major issues facing the black masses and the black elite as this work did, and none of his other books were as widely read. This is Du Bois’s analysis of the New South and race.

Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (1968; University of North Carolina) is still the most detailed and richly researched account of the development of race as an idea and the creation of racial attitudes and beliefs in the United States during the era of the rise and dominance of slavery.

The Myth of the Negro Past

(1941; Beacon), the anthropologist Melville Herskovits’s pathbreaking study of the retention of African heritage in the New World, meant to refute the work of the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, who postulated that slavery had destroyed slaves’ African culture and forced them to organize an entirely new one. It should be read with a lesser-known but important book by Du Bois, Black Folk Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race , published in 1939, which deals with some of the same issues but mostly complements Herskovits’s work.

When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America

by Paula Giddings (HarperTrade), first published in 1984, is the best single-volume history of black women in the United States.

Before the Mayflower

by Lerone Bennett (1962; Johnson Publishers), is one of the most popular single-volume histories of blacks ever written. Bennett, the executive editor at Ebony for many years, writes with considerable narrative skill. Also, I would mention here John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom , first published in 1947 and, like Bennett’s book, reissued many times. It remains the gold standard as the one-volume history of African-Americans. It has probably been read by more students than any other black history book.

Blues People

by Amiri Baraka (1963; HarperTrade). Ralph Ellison never liked this book, and Amiri Baraka is certainly not a historian. Yet the book has held up well over the years. There are points that one can argue with, but on the whole this is a compelling account of the development of African-American people through their music, their transition from African to American, from non-Christian to Christian, from slave to “citizen.” There are certainly others who knew more about black folklore and the blues —Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Howard Odum, and Alan Lomax—and sometimes Baraka is a bit superficial. Nevertheless, this book is an important account of the African-American experience in an expressive art that seemed to capture the complexity of that journey more accurately than any other.

Harlem Renaissance