Black History Black Mythology?

PrintPrintEmailEmail A hostage to fate and a warrior against fate, the black soldier has fought for some 300 years on the front lines of ambiguity. Never sure of the real identity of his enemy, or the precise location of his battlefield, never completely accepted by his comrades in arms or his white neighbors at home, the black soldier has willingly and repeatedly offered himself as witness in war to the truths America refuses to recognize in war or peace.

Yet the harsh tact remains that, through no fault of liis own, the Negro fought—at least until the Korean War—as a spear-carrier in the ranks. In the main he fought, and he died, in the mass; a segregated mass.

With the exception of a few enormously courageous and talented individuals like Frederick Douglass, it cannot be said that the Negro took part in the public affairs of this country until after the Civil War. And in ante-bellum America, notes Professor Graham, whites had “a near-monopoly on wealth and education, and the levers of economic and political power, if not on the reservoir of native intelligence. No amount ol romanticizing about Frederick Douglass or Nat Turner and incipient slave revolts can modify that essential fact.”

In his introduction to From Slavery to Freedom , which, despite vagaries like the passage on Crispus Aitucks, is perhaps the best and most objective treatment of the subject, Franklin says: ”… the history of the Negro in America is essentially the story of the strivings of the nameless millions who have sought adjustment in a new and sometimes hostile world.”

To put it more bluntly: the history of the Negro in this country is the history of the white man’s resistance to his aspirations. This is a tragic fact, and it is understandable that Negroes look for something less depressing and more inspiring in their new evaluation of their past. Perhaps, indeed, it is inevitable. White historian Ki ic Goldman sees the writing of American history as having gone through a number of ethnic cycles, with the accent on the Afro-American as just one more swing of the pendulum:

Back in the 1880’s and 90’s, most American history was written hy conservative white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who tended to glorify free enterprise and the WASP businessman, and to ignore the despised Negroes, Italians, Irish, and the other poor. Early in the twentieth century, Charles Beard brought in the farmers and the workers and made them the good guys. Then some of the immigrant boys grew up and began writing history, and the immigrants came into their own—the Jews, for instance. Now the civil rights drive has brought the Negro forward for special attention.

In Goldman’s view, it is too much to expect cool, objective history from underprivileged groups that have begun to achieve equality: “The Jews play up the Einsteins in their midst, not the slumlords. The IrishAmericans don’t emphasize their record as saloonkeepers. The Negroes, of course, want the same kind ot favorably selective history.”

Nevertheless, it is disheartening to examine some of the material that has recently been dug up or contrived and offered as legitimate documentation for black history. There is a commercial angle, of course: money is being made out of the urgent demand for books, pamphlets, records, and film strips that can be tised as the basis for courses in Afro history. Otherwise respectable companies become surprisingly involved: the New York Times , for example, formed Arno Press to reprint a list of “Forty-Five Books America Forgot,” edited by William Loren Katx, author of Eyewitness: The Negro in American History . (Arno’s staff, incidentally, is white by six to one.) Sure enough, Crispus Attucks turns up in ads for the set (price, $485) as evidence that “the Negro past has for the most part been suppressed, neglected, or distorted"; Attucks died, according to Arno Press, “leading the patriots.” Although many of the individual books are worthy selections, like Carter G. Woodson’s The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 , and George W. Williams’ classic History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 , there are also some dubious members. American Slavery As It Is , for instance, an antislavery propaganda tract compiled in 1830, by the Grimké sisters and Theodore Dwight Weld, is presented as if it were straight history; and The Life and Adventures of Nat Love , better known as Deadwood Dick, the black cowboy who integrated gun fighting in the Wild West of yesteryear, is offered without apology. As J. Frank Dobie has written, there were many black cowboys in the old West, and fine cowboys they were. Deadwood, however, operated mostly on the far side of the law, and was an inveterate teller of tall tales: the truth was not in him. He also comes through as something of a bigot; he enjoyed killing “painted savages” and “dirty Mexicans.” In an anticlimax that must not greatly please today’s black militants, Deadwood sold out, ending his days in comfortable circumstances as a Pullman porter.