Black History Black Mythology?


Bored with spoofing Governor Ronald Reagan and the Establishment, a group ol young “with it” players known as the San Francisco Minie Troupe have concocted a skit designed to outrage the liberals in their audience. The scene is Boston’s King Street on the frosty night of March 5, 1770. A crowd of patriots merrily toss paving stones, jagged chunks of ice, and oyster shells at Captain Thomas Preston’s redcoats standing guard before the Custom House; they taunt the soldiers with cries of “lobsterback”—the eighteenth- century equivalent of “pig.” Upstage, on the fringe of the crowd, a Negro street cleaner sweeps the gutter, ignoring the hubbub. Suddenly the crack of musketry is heard. Five men fall, including the Negro sweeper.

That was the role played by Crispus Attacks in the American Revolution,” says the narrator.

The lights lade; the scene changes.

Professor Hugh Davis Graham, associate director of the Institute of Southern History at Johns Hopkins University, likes to cite the Attucks skit as a reaction to a problem that contemporary American schools and universities are being forced to confront: the demands by students for an exclusive locus on Negro history and culture.

Like most white teachers of American history today, Graham concedes that the substantial contributions of the American Negro have often been ignored, or “at best, minimized”; that much of the writing’ of American history up until the last twenty-five years or so was rooted in a condescension that presupposed the basic inferiority of the black man. Rut Graham and other leaders in the profession are sometimes appalled by the blatant mythmaking now in progress, by the diet of just plain bad history being served up, as often as not for political or therapeutic purposes; served up, sometimes, under the threat ol violence by black revolution- aries ou the rampage in high schools and universities. Afro-American history has become terribly fashionable. It sells. And to meet the demands, a great many philosophical descendants of Parson Weems are abroad in the land, hard at work on separate hut equal black fables to match such stories as the one about George Washington and the cherry tree. What we are witnessing, says a distinguished American historian, is “a frantic rummaging in the file-drawers of history for Negro men of accomplishment—any kind of accomplishment.” C-ris- W pus Atuicks is a rase in point. History reveals practically nothing about the man beyond the fact that an individual of that name was among the five Boston citizens killed by Captain Preston’s soldiers in the “Roston Massacre,” five years before the outbreak of the American Revolution. Although one historian says there is strong evidence to suggest that Attucks was a full-blooded Natick Indian, the consensus seems to be that he was a middle-aged mulatto seaman. Certainly he was no street cleaner; in fact John Adams, who successfully defended the British soldiers in the trial that followed, declared that it was to Attucks’s “mad behavior” that “in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed.” That doesn’t make him a hero. Many historians, attempting to evaluate the character of the so-called massacre, consider it little more than an incident of street hooliganism. Btit Samuel Adams, the Lenin of the American Revolution, turned it to his propagandists purposes; he did all lie could to make Preston appear a practitioner of “police brutality.” (See “The Boston Massacre” in the December, 1966, AMERICAN HERITAGE .)

Today we are being told, over and over again, that Attacks, a runaway slave, was the first black American to lay down his life in the cause of freedom. Even the most respected Negro historians arc inclined to support this myth. John I lope Franklin of the University of Chicago declared in From Slavery to Freedom: “Here was a fugitive slave who, with his bare hands, was willing to resist England to the point of giving his life.” Last year, Mayor Hugh Addonixio of Newark, New Jersey, proclaimed a public school holiday in honor of the black martyr; this year, Plainfield and Paterson followed suit. When the demands of black students for Crispas Attacks holidays elsewhere in the country have been denied by school principals and local mayors, trouble has ensued.

Across the nation Negroes press for monuments to their race. Tenants in a Harlem housing development named for composer Stephen Foster persuade the city to rename the buildings for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Brooklyn, the black citixenry agitates to rename a park for Afarcus Garvey, the flamboyant “Black AIoscs” who led an abortive back-to-Africa movement. State legislatures, feeling the pressure, rush through laws requiring the teaching of Afro history and culture —leaving it up to harried teachers to determine just what Afro courses ought to consist of. A bill has been introduced in Congress to establish a National (Joinmission on Negro History, at a cost of $1,000,000, to determine how that subject can best be “integrated into the mainstream of American education and life.” In some cities, slum children struggle with the Swahili language, taught by black nationalists in flowing daishiki robes who tell them that English is the language of their colonial oppressors. Some high-school bands, under pressure from Negro students, have stopped playing “Dixie” because it was originally composed as a blackface minstrel song.