- 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
Bored with spoofing Governor Ronald Reagan and the Establishment, a group ol young “with it” players known as the San Francisco Minie Troupe have concocted a skit designed to outrage the liberals in their audience. The scene is Boston’s King Street on the frosty night of March 5, 1770. A crowd of patriots merrily toss paving stones, jagged chunks of ice, and oyster shells at Captain Thomas Preston’s redcoats standing guard before the Custom House; they taunt the soldiers with cries of “lobsterback”—the eighteenth- century equivalent of “pig.” Upstage, on the fringe of the crowd, a Negro street cleaner sweeps the gutter, ignoring the hubbub. Suddenly the crack of musketry is heard. Five men fall, including the Negro sweeper.
“ That was the role played by Crispus Attacks in the American Revolution,” says the narrator.
The lights lade; the scene changes.
Professor Hugh Davis Graham, associate director of the Institute of Southern History at Johns Hopkins University, likes to cite the Attucks skit as a reaction to a problem that contemporary American schools and universities are being forced to confront: the demands by students for an exclusive locus on Negro history and culture.
Like most white teachers of American history today, Graham concedes that the substantial contributions of the American Negro have often been ignored, or “at best, minimized”; that much of the writing’ of American history up until the last twenty-five years or so was rooted in a condescension that presupposed the basic inferiority of the black man. Rut Graham and other leaders in the profession are sometimes appalled by the blatant mythmaking now in progress, by the diet of just plain bad history being served up, as often as not for political or therapeutic purposes; served up, sometimes, under the threat ol violence by black revolution- aries ou the rampage in high schools and universities. Afro-American history has become terribly fashionable. It sells. And to meet the demands, a great many philosophical descendants of Parson Weems are abroad in the land, hard at work on separate hut equal black fables to match such stories as the one about George Washington and the cherry tree. What we are witnessing, says a distinguished American historian, is “a frantic rummaging in the file-drawers of history for Negro men of accomplishment—any kind of accomplishment.” C-ris- W pus Atuicks is a rase in point. History reveals practically nothing about the man beyond the fact that an individual of that name was among the five Boston citizens killed by Captain Preston’s soldiers in the “Roston Massacre,” five years before the outbreak of the American Revolution. Although one historian says there is strong evidence to suggest that Attucks was a full-blooded Natick Indian, the consensus seems to be that he was a middle-aged mulatto seaman. Certainly he was no street cleaner; in fact John Adams, who successfully defended the British soldiers in the trial that followed, declared that it was to Attucks’s “mad behavior” that “in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed.” That doesn’t make him a hero. Many historians, attempting to evaluate the character of the so-called massacre, consider it little more than an incident of street hooliganism. Btit Samuel Adams, the Lenin of the American Revolution, turned it to his propagandists purposes; he did all lie could to make Preston appear a practitioner of “police brutality.” (See “The Boston Massacre” in the December, 1966, AMERICAN HERITAGE .)
Today we are being told, over and over again, that Attacks, a runaway slave, was the first black American to lay down his life in the cause of freedom. Even the most respected Negro historians arc inclined to support this myth. John I lope Franklin of the University of Chicago declared in From Slavery to Freedom: “Here was a fugitive slave who, with his bare hands, was willing to resist England to the point of giving his life.” Last year, Mayor Hugh Addonixio of Newark, New Jersey, proclaimed a public school holiday in honor of the black martyr; this year, Plainfield and Paterson followed suit. When the demands of black students for Crispas Attacks holidays elsewhere in the country have been denied by school principals and local mayors, trouble has ensued.
Across the nation Negroes press for monuments to their race. Tenants in a Harlem housing development named for composer Stephen Foster persuade the city to rename the buildings for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Brooklyn, the black citixenry agitates to rename a park for Afarcus Garvey, the flamboyant “Black AIoscs” who led an abortive back-to-Africa movement. State legislatures, feeling the pressure, rush through laws requiring the teaching of Afro history and culture —leaving it up to harried teachers to determine just what Afro courses ought to consist of. A bill has been introduced in Congress to establish a National (Joinmission on Negro History, at a cost of $1,000,000, to determine how that subject can best be “integrated into the mainstream of American education and life.” In some cities, slum children struggle with the Swahili language, taught by black nationalists in flowing daishiki robes who tell them that English is the language of their colonial oppressors. Some high-school bands, under pressure from Negro students, have stopped playing “Dixie” because it was originally composed as a blackface minstrel song.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
But the evidence of that spirit seems faint in many sectors, and meanwhile the shadow of Crispus Attucks lengthens across the land.