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
Some Negro historians counter this suggestion with the claim that American white-controlled universities have been dishing out anti-Negro propaganda for several hundred years. “You can say all you want on behalf of normal academic procedure and academic objectivity,” observes Professor Vincent Harding of Atlanta’s Spelman College; “but the fact is that normal academic procedure has done nothing to stop the destruction of Negro lives in this country for 400 years. Rather, the universities have served to support the main theses of American society, which have included the dispensing of injustice toward the black man.” Supposing this to be true, the proper rejoinder, presumably, is that two streams of propaganda will never make one truth.
At my rate, a pertinent fact, often ignored, is that there are today lew Negro scholars thoroughly trained in black history. Professor August Meier of Ohio’s Kent State University, a consultant on Negro history to a large publishing firm, explains it thus:
Negro historians who took their Ph.D.’s in the iggo’s tended to avoid Negro history, and this occurred at a time when a small but growing number of white scholars was becoming increasingly interested in the subject. Koth phenomena rellccted the growing tendency toward integration in intellectual and academic circles.
The extent to which the trend toward black-white integration in the field of history has reversed itself in recent years became apparent in the debate over the merits of William Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner . Most white historians sec the fictionalixcd story as historically sound. In a book entitled Wiliam Styron’ Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond , some blacks charge that Styron has portrayed Nat as a Stereotypie “Sambo” figure when lie was, in historical fact, “virile, commanding, courageous.”
The battle was joined in two spirited reviews of Ten Black Writers Respond , one in the New York Review of Books by Professor Eugene Genovese of Sir George Williams University in Montreal; the other by Princeton’s Professor Martin Duberman in the New York Times Book Review . Both reviewers said in effect that it was obvious that the blacks’ heroes must all be straight-arrow, devoid of self-doubts, and largcr-than-life, or the blacks won’t play. Genovese wrote:
William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond shows the extent to which the American intelligentsia is splitting along racial rather than ideological lines. As such, the book needs to be taken with alarmed seriousness, no matter how absurd most of the contributions are. … It is clear that the black intelligentsia faces a serious crisis. Its political affinities lie with the black power movement which increasingly demands conformity, mythmaking, and historical fabrication.
Dubermun took issue with the black writers’ contention—first put forward by Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker twenty-five years ago—that the American slaves were an angry proletariat, seething with revolt, and that Nat Turner’s rebellion was but one of hundreds.
By insisting that all slaves “craved freedom,” the essayists force themselves into a bizarre view of the institution of slavery. For slavery could not have been as barbaric as they otherwise insist if it inculcated self-love and masculine assertion in the slaves, rather than the self-hate and loss of identity more usually taken to be its products. Only when slavery is viewed as an essentially benign institution … can it follow that it left no deep personality scars on its victims. But the weight of historical evidence and opinion suggests that American slavery was harsh enough to produce serious character disorders in many slaves.
The question of the total effect of slavery on the human personality goes to the heart of the Negro history dilemma. A subjugated people, reduced to and held in a condition little better than that of domestic animals, is not likely to make much history. Many blacks today are highly sensitive on this point, and most white historians are therefore rather gingerly in the way they approach it. What they say, nevertheless, is this: the Negro lias only recently become intrigued witli his American heritage because he has only recently been able to take part in history. He was brought here in chains from West Africa, and until his freedom was achieved after the Civil War, the black man was not allowed by the white man to make history, except in the mass. As uneducated slaves, blacks were obviously in no position to lead noteworthy careers: they could not become doctors, lawyers, military leaders, architects, engineers, statesmen.
It is true, as Ebony magazine said movingly in a recent issue devoted to Negro history, that the black man has had to fight even for the right to die in the service of this country in all its wars.