- Historic Sites
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
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 (
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.
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
(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,
by Paula Giddings (HarperTrade), first published in 1984, is the best single-volume history of black women in the United States.
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
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.