Black History Black Mythology?

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Enterprising amateurs have also jumped into the black history field. Henry Dabbs, a talented young Negro artist who works for a New York advertising firm, has designed an Afro-American History Fact Pack that includes a book, sketches by Dabbs of Negro heroes, a phonograph record, and slides, tracing the history of the black man from the time of Creation. The Fact Pack sells for $80, and Mr. Dabbs says it is being snapped up by public school systems as fast as his Afro-American Heritage House publishing company can produce it.

Mr. Dabbs’s approach is unabashedly chauvinistic. He has come up with a black Civil War martyr who he claims was the first casualty on the Union side. As a member of the First Volunteers from Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, responding to President Lincoln’s call to save the White House from secessionists, Nicholas Biddle became the first man to shed his blood for the cause of the Union in the Civil War. The date: April 18, 1861.

The Fact Pack also implies strongly that the black man was the father of the human race.

Recent fossil findings by world famous paleontologist Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey and his wife in Olduvai Gorge, Tanganyika Territory, East Africa, unquestionably establish the African as the first man on earth. The fossils date back 1,750,000 years, older by as much as half a million years than all previous fossil findings!

The question of whether these fossils were once covered with bare skin or with fur, and what color it may have been in either case, is not raised.

Yet despite mythmaking, despite black separatism with its destructive tendency to confuse history and propaganda, despite the relative meagerness of genuine Negro history, and despite more or less meretricious attempts to satisfy the clamor for Afro material with shoddy products, it seems that there ought to be a respectable way out of the dilemma of black history.

“The solution is to tell it like it was, tell it like it is, and tell why it wasn’t told before,” said a report issued last year by a group of educators and civil rights officials under the sponsorship of the President’s Commission for the Observance of Human Rights. “The real story of the degradation of black people by white, the history of prejudice and the account of the nature of prejudice is a more powerful instrument for building the ego of Negroes and the social understanding of all people than any fictional history could be.”

Along this line, explicit recognition has recently been given to the failure, especially in school textbooks, to treat Negro history with an even hand. Professor James M. McPherson of Princeton University’s history department cites the extensive influence of the southern historian Ulrich B. Phillips, whose American Negro Slavery was published in 1918. Phillips was a leading promoter of the thesis, still popular in the South, that most slaves were happy on the plantation and were lucky to be introduced by their kind masters to the rudiments of civilization: “On the whole, the plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of American Negroes represented.” Comments McPherson:

This interpretation was consciously or subconsciously a bulwark of white supremacy and segregation. It taught white children that they were superior to Negroes, that second-class citizenship … was right for the Negro; that lie was a carefree, irresponsible human being, satisfied with his place in American life just as he had once been satisfied with slavery.

The view of most historians today is that the research that underlay Phillips’s “plantation legend” was seriously flawed: in the main it was based on the personal records of the larger southern slave-owners, and he paid little heed to observations of travellers through the South, to authentic memoirs by ex-slaves, or to the newspapers of the period. Yet the extent to which Phillips’s views colored the interpretations of writers of textbooks in both the North and the South can be inferred from this astonishing passage in early editions of The Growth of the American Republic , by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, neither of whom is generally thought of as a white supremacist:

As for “Sambo,” whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South for its “Peculiar Institution.” … Although brought to America by force, the incurably optimistic Negro soon became attached to the country, and devoted to his white folks.

When that passage first appeared, in 1930, Negro civil rights leaders protested; and Morison (who wrote it) and Commager agreed to remove it. Apparently communication broke down, however, since the offending words were not actually taken out until the 1962 edition of the book.