Black History Black Mythology?

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Another legitimate facet of the effort to “tell it like it was” is the growing interest today in the history of Africa’s black civilizations before the coming of European colonization. It is true that much of this history lies in the preliterate past. Yet modern scholarship is making advances in this field, and it is now clear that well-developed political states and even empires existed in sub-Sahara Africa many centuries ago. The ancient kingdom of Ghana, for example, reached high levels of wealth and cultivation in the eleventh century under the black king Tenkamenin.

As for well-researched studies of American Negro history, there has actually been much more produced than many of the black chauvinists and revolutionaries seem to be aware of, busy as they are with their repeated “confrontations” and their long lists of demands. Representative of many excellent works by both white and black historians are such books as Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956), C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), Gilbert Osofsky’s The Burden of Race (1967), and Leon F. Litwack’s North of Slavery (1961), as well as the books by Franklin and by Woodson.

Surely, in this connection, special honor is due to those Negro historians who have striven valiantly for objectivity while themselves incessantly subject to the painful discriminations of a segregated society. The career of one of the most brilliant of them, W. E. B. Du Bois, is illustrative. “I write,” he said in Black Reconstruction (1935), “in a field devastated by passion. … But… I want to be fair, objective, and judicial; to let no searing of the memory by intolerable insult and cruelty make me fail to sympathize with human frailties and contradiction, in the eternal paradox of good and evil. But armed and warned by all this, and fortified by long study of the facts, I stand at the end of this writing, literally aghast at what American historians have done in this field.” In the end, Du Bois was unable to contemplate longer the slow and stumbling pace of the American people toward the fulfillment of their pledge as a nation “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” He died in 1963, in Accra, Ghana, an embittered expatriate and a member of the Communist party.

Unhappily, the sober conclusions of real historians, whether white or black, do not seem to filter down very rapidly into grade school and high school textbooks- nor to fill the bill for Afro courses when they do. Not long ago I visited the Robert A. Waller High School in Chicago. A predominantly Negro school, it had been in turmoil for many months, with black students presenting countless grievances, and I wanted to observe their reactions to the supplemental black history course introduced there.

How, I wondered, do you conduct a course that focuses upon the cruelties of slavery, on the fact that Negroes were literally written out of the Declaration of Independence; on the fact that once freed they were disfranchised, lynched, held back, and degraded—and not have the Negro students wind up hating Whitey the more? It is one thing to teach them about Frederick Douglass, and poetess Phyllis Wheatley, and Harriet Tubman of the Underground Railroad, and Matthew Henson, who was with Peary at the Pole, and Benjamin Banneker, who helped plan the city of Washington, D.C., and other remarkable black men and women who overcame incredible obstacles to achieve what they did; but what are the side effects? If Waller High is typical, and I believe it is, they are disturbing.

For one thing, much concomitant debunking of traditional white heroes seems to take place. And in some schools, where black militants are doing the teaching, traditional black heroes are also debunked, and contemporary revolutionaries of dubious accomplishment are thrust forward. (“They must drop George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, those mothers,” exclaims Jimmy Garrett, chairman of the Black Studies Program of the new Federal City College in Washington, B.C., speaking of his teachers. “They must make Malcolm X, Elijah Mohammad, Huey Newton, and LeRoi Jones real heroes.”)

The over-all situation, at this writing, does not look very encouraging at either the school or university level. After a night of violence at Harvard last spring the faculty voted to allow students a voice in choosing teachers for the new black studies program—a decision that, as President Nathan M. Pusey observed, “is going to create quite a few difficulties in trying to get the kind of program we want"—that is, one taught objectively by genuine historians. At Cornell, despite an elaborate effort to install an Afro studies curriculum conforming to black demands, dissatisfaction led to an episode that jarred the entire country when black students were photographed occupying a campus building with rifles in their hands and bandoleers of bullets over their shoulders.

I was talking about all this one afternoon in the quiet study of Professor C. Vann Woodward of Yale University, a shy southerner who appears to have the confidence and affection of both black and white historians. He turned to the words of George Washington Williams, the first great Negro historian. “Not as a blind panegyrist for my race,” wrote Williams, “nor as the partisan apologist, but from a love for the ‘truth of history,’ I have striven to record the truth.”

The correction of bias and distortion in Negro history, said Woodward, would not be brought about by eulogy and apology and panegyrics, but “rather by the spirit that informed the work of George Williams.”