November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
African-Americans have experienced a cultural paradox, or a contradiction. For many years, until World War II, they were largely excluded from the official history of the United States. Not in the sense that they went unmentioned; after all, one can hardly conceive a history of the United States that does not deal with slavery, abolitionism, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. But it was certainly possible to talk about blacks largely as objects, not agents, as primitives, as an unfortunate population whose presence was largely an annoyance, a misfortune, or a tragedy. Blacks were usually presented as a people without a history in Africa, and they were presented as contributing nothing historically important to American life. Indeed, Western slavery had brought blacks into the loop of civilization and so was something of a perverse gift.
This neglect, this denial, however, did not stop blacks from being an object of fascination for whites, with stage minstrelsy, with books and commentaries about race and the meaning of racial characteristics and traits, with ritualized lynching and acts of terrorism, with laws against miscegenation and socializing between the races, and against blacks exerting any sort of political presence in the land. Their being a people without a history made them, in the eyes of whites, a people unworthy of respect, which whites reinforced by making them a people without power, but they were not, by any means, a people devoid of interest. Indeed, they had a deviant allure, largely because what whites saw in black people was what they feared to see in themselves. As Ralph Ellison put it, “The white American has charged the Negro American with being without past or tradition (something which strikes the white man with a nameless horror), just as he himself has been so charged by European and American critics with a nostalgia for the stability once typical of European cultures.…”
It was the abolitionist movement in the United States that generated the first histories of blacks. One of the earliest was the white abolitionist and children’s writer Lydia Maria Child’s
In 1836 the abolitionist Robert Benjamin Lewis published what is credited with being the first black history by a black: Light and Truth: Collected From the Bible and Ancient and Modern History, Containing the Universal History of the Colored Man and Indian Race, From the Creation of the World to the Present Time. This was followed in 1841 by the fugitive slave J. W. C. Pennington’s
The first truly professional black historian, or the first black to write something like a professional history of African-Americans, was George Washington Williams, with his two-volume work
Woodson, who, like Du Bois, earned a doctorate from Harvard, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and the Journal of Negro History four months later. He introduced the idea of Negro history into the mainstream of the culture in 1926 by starting Negro History Week, which became Black History Month in 1976. He also published a number of books dealing with African and African-American history.
Historically black colleges were important in developing the study of black history, not only by introducing courses in the subject but also by having faculty members who devoted themselves to it: August Meier, Rayford Logan, Alrutheus Taylor, and Charles H. Wesley, among others.
There has always been a populist strain running through some black historiography that largely consists of the idea that the redemption of the African-American mind, as well as the political salvation of the African-American, will come with a proper understanding of a history that has not only been denied by whites but distorted and stolen. A variety of writers would fit in this school. They include J. A. Rogers (
There are today far too many able historians, both white and black, who write about black history, from Barbara Fields to Robin D. G. Kelley, from Darlene Clark Hine to Patricia Sullivan, for anyone to be able to pick out just a few. What follows is my list of what I think are classic or essential works.
by W. E. B. Du Bois (1903; many editions), is probably the most influential or, at least, most discussed book published by a black American intellectual in the twentieth century, although
(1941; Beacon), the anthropologist Melville Herskovits’s pathbreaking study of the retention of African heritage in the New World, meant to refute the work of the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, who postulated that slavery had destroyed slaves’ African culture and forced them to organize an entirely new one. It should be read with a lesser-known but important book by Du Bois,
by Paula Giddings (HarperTrade), first published in 1984, is the best single-volume history of black women in the United States.
by Lerone Bennett (1962; Johnson Publishers), is one of the most popular single-volume histories of blacks ever written. Bennett, the executive editor at Ebony for many years, writes with considerable narrative skill. Also, I would mention here John Hope Franklin’s
by Amiri Baraka (1963; HarperTrade). Ralph Ellison never liked this book, and Amiri Baraka is certainly not a historian. Yet the book has held up well over the years. There are points that one can argue with, but on the whole this is a compelling account of the development of African-American people through their music, their transition from African to American, from non-Christian to Christian, from slave to “citizen.” There are certainly others who knew more about black folklore and the blues —Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Howard Odum, and Alan Lomax—and sometimes Baraka is a bit superficial. Nevertheless, this book is an important account of the African-American experience in an expressive art that seemed to capture the complexity of that journey more accurately than any other.
by Nathan Huggins (1971; Oxford). There have been many books published about the Harlem Renaissance, but this early one by Nathan Huggins remains one of the best interdisciplinary studies of the period. David Levering Lewis’s
by Taylor Branch (1988; Simon & Schuster). This initial volume in Branch’s epic history is the most compelling, gripping, altogether most powerful narrative available of the first stage of the civil rights movement, an absolutely stunning book.
Martin Duberman’s biography
by Jacqueline Jones (1985; Knopf). Jones is one of the finest labor historians of her generation, and this work is a definitive social and economic history of black women and the family. It should be read together with Giddings’s book.