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Wednesday, July 13, 2011


But there was yet one more step that historians had to take in their revision of the original story of slavery and its aftermath before they were able to reach the level of understanding that W. E. B. Du Bois had already exhibited in the 1930's. They had acknowledged that Negroes suffered; that Negroes labored productively; that Negroes created and sustained a rich culture. Now, they had to take the final step and recognize, with Du Bois, that the slaves and their descendants were agents in the historical process, not merely subjects of the historical process. This was the achievement of Berlin and Fields, and many other historians writing in the two decades. Historians began to attend to the many ways in which slaves managed to act, to shape some portion of their lives, to bring their intelligence and energy to bear on the task of commanding some sphere of personal agency in the face of the oppression, brutality, and overwhelming police and military force brought to bear on them by their White owners.

Some of the earliest work along these lines dealt with the slave uprisings that periodically challenged the dominion of White Americans. In 1943, less than ten years after Du Bois’ work on reconstruction, the distinguished radical historian Herbert Aptheker published a book on American Negro Slave Revolts that detailed the repeated efforts of groups of slaves, against overwhelming odds, to take up arms against their oppressors. The successful slave revolt on the island of San Domingo, led by Toussaint l’Ouverture at the end of the eighteenth century, terrified slave owners, who feared that they would be the objects of a similar uprising.

As time passed, historians focused their attention on smaller, less dramatic acts of individual agency among the enslaved population. They began to resurrect stories of slaves who managed to carve out little spheres of entrepreneurial activity sufficient to enable them to accumulate the money to buy their freedom. They traced the lives of slaves, and former slaves, who succeeded in establishing a homestead for their families, found ways to educate their children, and held off, as best they could, the onslaughts of White terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Over the past half century and more, a new and quite different story of America has been told by historians Black and White. This story is not an expansion of the standard tale of a City Upon a Hill, a Nation Conceived in Liberty, an Exceptional Nation Founded as the Embodiment of an Idea; it is, instead, a total revision of that original celebratory fiction. We can now see that bondage of one sort or another has from the beginning been woven into the fabric of America. This new story is fundamentally different from the more popular and much less threatening Multiculturalism, which simply seeks to expand the old story with new chapters about the lives and culture of previously ignored sub-populations. This story demands a total rethinking of America, in much the same way that the story of colonialism told by Franz Fanon and others demands a total rethinking of European imperialism.

The intellectual home for this project of rethinking America is the new academic discipline of Afro-American Studies.

A Home for the Story of America

In the 1960's, America's college and university campuses erupted into protest, as Black students, newly admitted to formerly lily-white schools, demanded that their history, their art, their literature, the breadth and depth of their experiences and those of their ancestors be admitted into the curriculum. Terrified by the rebellions in the cities, and by campus protests triggered by the murder of Martin Luther King, anxious to maintain campus order and at least the simulacrum of racial sensitivity, presidents, provosts, deans, and faculties hustled about conjuring up a response to the demands. To anyone familiar with the glacial pace of change in the academy, the response seemed blindingly fast. Within three years, close to five hundred Institutes, Programs, Committees, Degrees, and Departments of Black Studies, Africana Studies, or Afro-American Studies had been established.

Pride of place as the first Black Studies program in America is traditionally awarded to San Francisco State, where several years of protest and negotiation led in 1968 to the establishment of a full-scale Black Studies curriculum consisting of eleven courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences, in a department headed by Nathan Hare. But five years earlier, at Merritt College, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other members of Merritt's Afro-American Society forced the college briefly to adopt a black history course.

The response to the protests was for the most part disingenuous, temporizing, and calculated to be as easily reversed as it had been initiated. Once the cities stopped burning and the students stopped marching, the tide of Black Studies receded. Quite rapidly, the number of programs shrank to perhaps two hundred. Nevertheless, those two hundred persisted, and more than forty years later, they are firmly established as a part of the Arts and Sciences curriculum. More recently, scholars have begun to create doctoral programs -- always the true sign of success for a discipline in the academy. First at Temple University, then at the University of Massac­husetts Amherst, later at Berkeley and Yale, just recently at Harvard, Michigan State, and elsewhere, a serious student could pursue a doctorate and enter on a career of scholarship and teaching in Black Studies or Afro-American Studies.

No sooner had Afro-American Studies sprung into being than it came under attack, both from inside and outside the academy. A few of the attacks were simply uninformed -- like Saul Bellow's famous sneer that when someone showed him a Zulu War and Peace he would be prepared to admit the legitimacy of studying African literature. Often the objection to Afro-American Studies was that its entry into the academic commun­ity had been political in its motivation, and hence that it was unsuited to take its place among the pure, disinterested disciplines whose only ambition was the pursuit of knowledge.

Hysterical attack were launched against what is commonly called "multi-culturalism," by Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Lynne Cheney, Dinesh D'Souza, and others. They and others like them were still in the grip of the fantasy that America exhibits a magical unity that makes it a model and inspiration to the world, and they warned anxiously of the corruption of learning and the end of the university if we stopped telling the old story.

In the ferment of the early years of the discipline, scores of manifestos, defenses, explanations, and proposals were published, with a wide variety of goals. The early founders and proponents of Black Studies were almost unanimous in insisting on a political dimension to the new discipline. They called on Black Studies to provide support and comfort to Black students enrolled at formerly all-white institutions. They demanded that the new programs establish and maintain close connections to northern urban Black communities, near which many of the colleges and universities were located. Some of the most prominent leaders even wanted Black Studies on the campuses to offer practical training for social action. Higher education, they hoped, would serve as a staging ground for revolution.

There was one demand that came most immediately and forcefully from the Black students themselves. Being admitted at long last in significant numbers to previously all-white campuses, they looked at the course offerings and reading assignments and asked, Where are we in all of this? Where are the men and women who labored under slavery, and struggled against it? Where are the poets, the novelists, the playwrights, the composers, the painters, the sculptors, the scientists, the entertainers whose genius has enriched American culture? Are there no Black historians, philosophers, sociologists, political theorists, politicians, or religious leaders in the entire sweep of American history? Where are the Black labor leaders, the visionaries, the revolutionaries?

At the very least, they pleaded, add a Black novelist or two to a course on American literature. If nothing else, spend a few weeks on the story of slavery in a year-long introduction to American History. When telling the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction, allow the voice of W. E. B. Du Bois to balance the voices of the apologists for slavery.

Here, for example, is a Black historian, Roger Fischer, writing in 1969. "American literature courses meandered from Michael Wiggles­worth to J. D. Salinger without acknowledging the poems of Lawrence Dunbar or the novels of James Baldwin. Music professors bland­ly attributed the origins of jazz to Paul Whiteman. Few dramatics courses interrupted their readings of hallowed classics to pay any attention to Lorraine Hansbury's brilliant Raisin in the Sun. All too often, the only Negroes encountered in studies of American culture were little Topsy, Uncle Remus, and those docile darkies of Green Pastures, Sambo stereotypes created by white writers for white readers. United States history courses ignored the African heritage so completely it seemed to Lerone Bennett as if 'black Americans appear suddenly by a process of spontaneous generation.' Negroes merited attention in American history surveys only when they were making trouble or when white agitators were doing so on their behalf. Ten Jeffersonians arrested under the Alien and Sedition decrees often received as much time as and more sympathy than four million enslaved blacks. Instructors spent weeks discussing the white immigrant ghettos of the nineteenth century, then ignored Harlem, Hough, and Watts altogether."

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