- Historic Sites
Black History Black Mythology?
Blaming the “Sambo” image on white historians, Negroes are tempted to produce an equally false picture of their racial past
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
This is not just nonsense. Certain aspects of the drive to elevate black history and the Negro s “sense of identity” arc disturbing—quite aside from the question of accuracy vs. mythmaking. Shortly after the murder of Dr. King in April, iyRS, the Washington, D.(J., Teacher’s Union distributed “a relevant lesson plan” suggesting, among other things, that the arson and looting by Negroes that ensued in Washington, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities be likened to the Boston Tea Party. Thus, revised history is related to a current revolutionary trend that may become increasingly violent as time goes by. “You must have a cultural revolution before the violent revolution,” says Ronald Everett, better known as Ron Karenga ( karengga being a Swahili word meaning “keeper of the tradition"). A leading theoretician of the Black Power movement, he foresees black-vs.-white guerrilla warfare breaking out in the early 1970’s, once the present black generation has been sufficiently indoctrinated.
Undoubtedly this is an extreme view, but it is akin to a more widespread emphasis in recent efforts to galvanixe Negro history—the gravitation toward black separatism. This was evident in an eighteen-week television series put on by CBS and Columbia University early this year. The program, “Black Heritage,” drew immediate me from a prominent Negro leader, Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Judging by the first two programs, and especially by the official syllabus, the presentation is hopelessly Hawed,” said Mr. Wilkins. “It is quite clear that ‘Black Heritage’ will not be a history of Afro-Americans, but an interpretation of history from a single point of view: the contemporary left-of-center black militant minority view, liberally garnished with the thrust lor a new apartheid.”
In a dramatic statement a few days after his remarks about the television series, Mr. Wilkins opposed the demands of militant black students that universities establish all-black studies programs. Black history courses, he said, were fine, as long as they were part of the general curriculum; but it would be “simple suicide” for the black minority to talk seriously of apartheid, of going it alone:
If some white Americans, torn and confused by today’s clamor of some black students, should accede oHicially to the call for separate dormitories and autonomous racial schools within colleges and universities, there will he court action to determine anyone’s right to use public tax funds to set up what are, patently, Jim Crow schools. … We have suffered too many heartaches and shed too many tears and too much blood in fighting the evil of racial segregation to return in 19(19 to the lonely and dispiriting con unes of its demeaning prison.
Nevertheless, just such study programs as Wilkins denounced are being considered on scores of American college campuses, and some have already been put into operation. At the University of Wisconsin last spring, an aggressive black-student organization clamored lor an independent black-studies department: authorized to grant degrees, staffed by black teachers only, teaching its own curriculum, and open only to black students . At Antioch College, an Ohio school that has long prided itself on an experimental approach to education, a program meeting all of those stipulations is already in effect—and, as Mr. Wilkins predicted, it is being investigated by the federal government to determine whether, by a preposterous irony, it violates the civil rights laws passed to guarantee the Negro in America an equal education. Similar courses of study have been demanded, often to the accompaniment ol rioting and destruction, and always with provocative arrogance, at such institutions as Duke University, Wesleyan (in Connecticut), Krandeis, and San I’rancisco State. Blacks also complain about “quotas,” even though unprecedented numbers of their race are being sought out, admitted, and supported financially at colleges all over the country—and with entrance requirements often conveniently lowered.
Nor have the Ivy League universities been exempt from the push to give a place in the sun to the study of black history and culture. Harvard and Yale will both begin degree-granting programs in Afro-American studies this fall. So far, however, these bastions of academic freedom are resisting any attempts to organixe such programs outside the regular curriculum: they hope to lure only the best-qualified teachers, regardless of color, and the courses will be open to all. “We arc dealing with 25,000,000 of our own people with a special history, culture, and range of problems,” says a Harvard faculty report. “It can hardly be doubted that the study of black men in America is a legitimate and urgent academic endeavor.”
This cognizance, it seems, may not be enough to satisfy the militants. Already, in a course in Negro history taught at Harvard by historian Frank Freidel, there have been disruptive attacks from black students who insist that the professor’s views are inevitably “white-oriented” and therefore “irrelevant” to their needs. From their point of view, apparently, almost any Negro scholar, regardless of his other qualifications, would be better fitted to teach black history than the most learned white man. That this is racism of the crudest variety seems to be lost upon the aspiring militants. It also suggests what many academic leaders fear: that black history, taught by blacks to blacks, will be in constant danger of departing from historical objectivity and degenerating into mere anti-Establishment propaganda.