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Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Part One: The Story of America

I am a story teller, as readers of this blog will know, so I am going to tell you a story. It is actually the story of the evolution of a story -- a meta-story, as literary critics might say. It is the story of the American story, and of a challenge to that story, for Afro-American Studies was born in a struggle over who shall tell the story of America, and how that story shall go.

Let me begin with a fable.

Two thousand years ago, a Roman philosopher and poet named Lucretius wrote a long philosophical work that he called “On the Nature of Things” – De Rerum Natura. In the opening paragraph of the second part of his work, Lucretius conjured a striking image. Here is what Lucretius said:

"It is sweet ... to look upon the mighty struggles of war arrayed along the plains without sharing yourself in the danger. But nothing is more welcome than to hold the lofty and serene positions well fortified by the learning of the wise, from which you may look down upon others and see them wandering all abroad and going astray in their search for the path of life, see the contest among them of intellect, the rivalry of birth, the striving night and day with surpassing effort to struggle up to the summit of power and be masters of the world."

I would like you to imagine with me, if you will, a vast plain stretching to the horizon and beyond, on which are arrayed Americans, men, women, and children, going about the business of their lives. There are great cities on the plain, and small villages. There are factories, mines, forests, rivers, wheat farms and cattle ranges, road networks and airports, schools, office buildings, army camps, churches – all the countless sites where the daily activities of Americans take place. On the plain, also, are statehouses, courthouses, government buildings, prisons, gated communities, slums, movie theaters, football stadia, skating rinks and skid rows.

At one end of this vast plain is a high hill whose crest looks out over the plain, so that every part of it is in view. And standing on this crest, surveying the scene like the philosopher of Lucretius’ poem, is a man. We shall call him The Historian. The rest of us are gathered below the crest of the hill, on the side away from the plain, so that we can see the Historian, and hear him should he talk to us, but cannot ourselves see what is happening on the plain below. “Tell us what you see,” we say to him, and he agrees to give us an account of the events spread out before his eyes.

He tells us of voyages of discovery, of struggles with indigenous peoples, of the founding of towns, the planting of crops, and the herding of cattle. He tells us of town meetings, of births and deaths. He tells us of a great war between those who have chosen to live on the plain and those who live in the far off country from which they have come. He tells us of the founding of a nation, with laws and governments. He tells us of the adventure of exploring parts of the great plain that lie far to the West. He tells us of a terrible Civil War between brothers and neighbors, and of a tall, gaunt man who led the nation back to unity.

He tells us the story of America.

So much is happening on the plain below, that the Historian cannot possibly tell us all of it. Indeed, even if he were to restrict himself to just one town or village, one statehouse or courthouse, there would be more to tell than one story could encompass. So inevitably, appropriately, understandably, he makes choices.

Now, the Historian is an honorable man, committed to telling us the truth about the events on the great plain, so he does not lie. But he must choose, so he tries to limit himself to the most important events, as they unfold in the lives of the most important people. And as he surveys the plain, it seems clear to him that the most important people are the presidents, the senators, the generals, the business tycoons, and the preachers. The story he tells us is filled with their doings.

That is the story we hear, so of course it is the story we tell our children. The Historian writes books for them to read in school, and on days of celebration and remembrance, we retell the story he has told us, as a way of reminding ourselves who we are and where we have come from.

For a long while, the Historian is alone on the crest of the hill, and his story is the only one we hear. But all of the people in his story are White, and the Black men and women listening to the story grow restive. “Aren’t there any Black people on that plain?” they wonder. Finally, one of them begins to climb laboriously to the crest of the hill. “When you get there,” his fellows call after him, “tell us what you see.” And sure enough, when he is finally able to see the plain, he tells a very different story. It is a story of men and women seized violently and brought to the plain, where they are forced to labor on farms and in factories as chattel slaves. It is a story of their courage in resisting their enslavers, of the role they played in that great war of brother against brother. In this new story, the music and literature and art and science and philosophy of the Black folk on the plain find a place, as they did not in the story told by the Historian.

There are in fact now two Historians on the crest of the hill, each telling his story of the events on the plain.

Soon, some of the women listening below begin to ask why there is so little mention of women in these stories, so one of their number clambers to the hill crest and begins to tell her story of what she sees. Now there are three Historians, and before long there are still more.

A great struggle breaks out among the Historians on the crest of the hill – not a physical struggle, but a struggle over whose story will be the one that the people down below will hear and remember and tell to their children. For the stories are very different from one another, and a good deal turns on which story we hear and believe. How we act towards each other, what we think of ourselves, what we think America is – all this will be decided by which story we come to accept as the true story of America.

The story of Afro-American Studies is the story of a struggle for control of the voice that narrates the story of America. Before we can hear that story, we must remind ourselves of the story it is meant to replace.


Andrew Lionel Blais said...

If each historian on the hill is choosing to describe different things on the plain, then no historian is contradicting any other? If so, can the stories be put together by simple conjunction? If they can, what is the source of the struggle?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am afraid it is not that simple. Their stories are different, and in conflict with one another. Wait for it. We are just at the beginning of this tutorial.