Kimberly Hill

From Persuasion to Militancy: The Significance of Black History

 

Thanks to the efforts of Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Week, and other historians, the concept of Black American history is engrained in the minds of most modern Americans. We have been trained to think of the contributions of Black civil rights leaders, doctors, inventors, educators, and entertainers. We have even learned to question the credibility of American society in relation to struggles for social justice. But few Americans have been taught the significance of “Black History” as a concept.

We cannot truly understand Black history without realizing that it has always been motivated by social and racial stigmas. In the nineteenth century, numerous British and American scholars declared that Black people had no recorded history. They based their judgements on their low estimation of the African continent, a supposedly undeveloped landmass filled with supposedly degenerate, illiterate, uncivilized people. European explorers compared Africans with animals rather than human beings, and they assumed that Black people had always been too ignorant to make any achievements, let alone record them. Likewise, the American Black was commonly referred to as a “buck, wench, [or] brute beast” incapable of understanding the value of history.[1]

Black intellectuals like Frederick Douglass, George Washington Williams, and Carter G. Woodson supported historical research as an effort to combat these stereotypes and prove the humanity of Black people. Frederick Douglass published his autobiographies as evidence that slavery was a vice upon intelligent, moral individuals rather than a natural occupation for “the inferior race.” In 1882, Williams published the History of the Negro Race in America in order to “aggressively” advocate for integration.[2] Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life in 1915, The Journal of Negro History in 1917, and Negro History Week in 1926 to generate more research in the unexamined field of the history of American Blacks. In his own words, he advocated the study of Black history among other Blacks “for the express purpose of showing you that you have a history, a record, behind you.”[3] He realized that “If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy of the blessings of democracy or anything else.’”[4] Woodson recognized the study of Black history as both a social and political necessity.

In the wake of the Civil War and Reformation, American Blacks looked forward to gaining the political and economic status already enjoyed by Whites. However, Black intellectuals realized that they would only gain equal rights if they proved that black people deserved them and could employ them responsibly. Black academics poured their insights into the Black History scholarship, showing that Blacks had been influential in American wars, politics, education, literature, and medicine. They hoped to convince influential members of the White ruling class that Blacks could be valuable citizens at all levels of American society if America simply allowed them the opportunity. However, their defense of Black intelligence and ability paled next to the more popular caricatures of ignorant, vote-squandering Black mobs featured in the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” The NAACP and other Black leaders spent the early part of the twentieth century combating the slanderous effect of minstrel shows and derogatory films.[5]

By the 1950s and 1960s, many Black scholars grew militant in response to the persistent racism of Jim Crow laws, residential segregation, and economic inequality.[6] Unlike earlier historians, they felt that Blacks no longer needed to compile evidence that their race was capable of great achievements. Instead, they sought explanations of why America remained so reluctant to heed this message; assuming that the need for equal human rights was self-evident, they began to study American race relations to uncover the roots of racial prejudice. In a striking departure from the former practice of studying exceptional members of the Black race, historians chose to study group trends, such as the “Great Migration” to the northern states and the reactions of other racial and ethnic groups. They examined the various ethnicities behind the “White” racial label and compared their progress toward American success with the usually slower progress of the Black population. They brought the seemingly natural superiority of white people into question, chronicled the “persistent hypocrisy” of the U.S. government, and provided justification for civil rights and Black Power activism.[7]

In the aftermath of this tumultuous era, more socially disadvantaged groups seek to validate themselves through historical research. In the 1970s, scholars pressed universities to start separate African American Studies departments as a sign that Black culture is more than a sub-theme to traditional, White-dominated American History. Mexican American Studies, Women’s Studies, Native American Studies, and Asian American Studies programs soon followed. Studies in Black History seem to lead a modern movement to express the identities of racial minorities and other disadvantaged groups in new, non-Western styles. The goal has shifted from proving humanity by the standards of White Americans to defining racial identity according to a group’s own terms. Unusual methods and cultural expressions are encouraged in such programs; in African-American Studies, scholars try to escape American standards by using the Afrocentrism movement to appeal to American Blacks’ distant roots in Africa. Modern Black History is often defiant and abrasive because it serves the purpose of revealing systematic yet subtle economic racism and re-educating those who may have been mis-eduacated by learning Black history from the “White perspective.”[8] Yet historians are already wondering if traditional history should be completely rejected and whether multicultural movements are actually detrimental to education. The future of Black History lies in the ways that scholars answer this question.

Black History has always been a revolutionary subject because it celebrates the culture and achievements of African Americans. However, the standards by which scholars judge these achievements have changed drastically over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Though Frederick Douglass pioneered American Black History by recording his escape from slavery, remarkable education, and acceptance as an articulate compatriot of White abolitionists, modern Black historians eschew quests to meet White American standards. Instead, they celebrate the elements of Black culture that are unrelated to American whites, such as the practice of “signifying” or the persistence of African traditions. Still, developments in Black History have always been motivated by Black Americans’ need for social justification and political influence. And, while Black History Month 2002 reminds us of great African American leaders, it should also remind us that the racial tensions that motivated them remain an influential part of American life today.

 

To learn more about this topic, see these sources:

Uplifting the Race by Kevin Gaines

We Can’t Go Home Again by Clarence Earl Walker

Up From Slavery, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass

The African-American Century by Henry Louis Gates

 

Kimberly Hill is a graduating senior in the Plan II Honors Program. She will enroll in a doctoral program in American History in Fall 2002.

 

 

 

                                                           

 



[1] White, Deborah Gray. Too Heavy A Load. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1999. 13-14.

[2] Franklin, John Hope. “The History of African-American History.” Major Problems in African-American History, vol. 2. Ed. Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley Brown. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. 10-11

[3] Woodson, Carter G. “Carter G. Woodson on His Goals for Black History, 1922.” Major Problems in African-American History, vol. 2. Ed. Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley Brown. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. 3

[4] Woodson, Carter G. “Carter G. Woodson on His Goals for Black History, 1922.” 4

[5] Holt, Thomas C. “The Lonely Warrior: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the Struggle for Black Leadership..” Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Ed. John Hope Franklin and August Meier. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982. 53

[6] Franklin, John Hope. “The History of African-American History.” 12

[7] Franklin, John Hope. “The History of African-American History.” 12

[8] Harding, Vincent. “Vincent Harding on the Differences Between Negro History and Black History, 1971.” Major Problems in African-American History, vol. 2. Ed. Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley Brown. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. 8.