Historians and Historiography, African American

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Historians and Historiography, African American

The writing of African-American history began as a quest to understand the status and condition of black people in the United States. The first works on the subject, James W. C. Pennington's A Textbook of the Origin and History of the Colored People (1841) and Robert Benjamin Lewis's 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 (1836), sought to explain the enslavement of Africans in the western hemisphere. They recounted black achievement in ancient Africa, particularly Egypt and Ethiopia, to justify racial equality. These early black writers, similar to many of the first chroniclers of the United States, searched for the "hidden hand" of God in human affairs. History for them was the revelation of divine providence in the activities of people and nations.

Although African Americans suffered from enslavement, prejudice, and discrimination, Pennington and Lewis considered their status and condition as temporary because of the biblical prophecy that "Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God" (Ps. 68:31). For many African Americans, including black historians prior to the twentieth century, this prophecy was a promise of divine deliverance from the chains of slavery and the shackles of racial discrimination.

Histories written after Pennington and Lewis, such as William C. Nell's The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855), and William Wells Brown's The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), were intended to convince black and white Americans that African Americans deserved freedom, justice, and equality. If given the opportunity, an idea argued and illustrated in their books, African Americans could excel in all areas of life and contribute to the country's development and progress. They wrote to inspire African Americans to lead exemplary lives and not to provide any excuse for racial prejudice and discrimination.

George Washington Williams, at different times a soldier, pastor, editor, columnist, lawyer, and legislator, was the first black historian to write a systematic study of the African-American past. He bridged the gap between early chroniclers of African-American history and the more scientific writers of the twentieth century. Although Williams employed methods of research similar to professional historians of his day in conducting interviews, examining newspapers, using statistics, and culling archives, he still wrote to discern the plans of God in studying the past. His impressive two-volume work, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (1883), was flawed by its often literal reproduction of documentation and lack of analysis and interpretation. The publication, however, was a remarkable achievement for its time and earned Williams recognition as a pioneer in modern African-American historiography.

Almost a decade after Williams's pathbreaking work, W. E. B. Du Bois became the first African American to earn a doctorate in history, receiving the degree in 1895 from Harvard University. A year later, his dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 16381870," was the first volume published in the Harvard Historical Studies series. In his now classic The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903), Du Bois was one of the first historians to explore the interior lives of African Americans and their distinctive culture. As was the case with much of his scholarship, Du Bois was ahead of his time. Because of the effort to achieve freedom, justice, and equality, black historians, in the main, paid greater attention to revising the errors, omissions, and distortions of white historians and to glorifying the contributions of African Americans to American life than to identifying and defining a distinctive African-American culture.

Carter G. Woodson was the foremost proponent of the revisionist and contributionist school of African-American historiography. He earned the title "Father of Black History" for institutionalizing the revisionist and contributionist interpretation of the African-American past and for popularizing the study of black history. Woodson was the second African American to earn a doctorate in history, also from Harvard University, in 1912. He organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 to preserve the African-American heritage, promote interracial harmony, and inspire black youth to greater achievement. In 1916 Woodson launched the Journal of Negro History to publish scholarship about the African-American past. He established the Associated Publishers in 1921 to publish books of black history and initiated Negro History Week in 1926 (expanded to Black History Month in 1976). To reach a more popular audience, Woodson started the Negro History Bulletin in 1937. Until his death in 1950, Woodson and his colleagues in the ASNLH (William M. Brewer, Lorenzo J. Greene, Luther Porter Jackson, James Hugo Johnston, Rayford W. Logan, W. Sherman Savage, Alrutheus A. Taylor, and Charles H. Wesley) virtually dominated the field of African-American history.

Few historians wrote about the black experience before World War II. Gunnar Myrdal's two-volume study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944) and John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes (1947) sparked interest in the subject. Myrdal's report for the Carnegie Corporation on black life in the United States was completed with the assistance of several leading black and white scholars. The work was more sociological than historical, as it looked to resolve the problem of race and to avoid racial conflict similar to the riots that broke out in some twenty-five cities and towns after World War I. Franklin's book was an example of meticulous research that demonstrated the central role African Americans played in the development of the United States. These two trailblazing works influenced scholars to take greater note of African-American history for understanding the American past. World War II, in large measure, destroyed the traditional ideology of white supremacy and with it the justification for excluding African Americans from full citizenship as well as from the story of the nation's past.

Although white scholars now paid greater attention to the African-American experience, they used more of a sociological or race relations approach to black history. Many historians, black and white, wrote in the abolitionist tradition of revealing injustices heaped on African Americans. Black people became victims more than shapers of history. The legacy of slavery, for example, supposedly explained all the problems that beset the black population, from underachievement to illegitimacy, family instability, crime, illiteracy, and self-hatred. African Americans allegedly internalized the oppression of slavery and were mired in a culture of poverty.

With the growth of the civil rights and black consciousness movements of the 1950s and 1960s, black historians in particular began to explore African-American resistance and the creation of a viable culture that sustained black people from the brutality of slavery, segregation, and subordination. If ordinary African Americans braved often violent assaults to desegregate buses, lunch counters, drinking fountains, swimming pools, restrooms, and voting booths, then how strong was the legacy of slavery? What were the real historical patterns of black behavior? Earl E. Thorpe, who wrote prolifically about African-American historiography, suggested that "It is because the past is a guide with roads pointing in many directions that each generation and epoch must make its own studies of history" (1957, p. 183). It therefore becomes necessary to go back in time, to understand what some writers referred to as the "Second Reconstruction," and to appreciate the origins of the struggle for civil rights and black power.

By the late 1960s, historians of the African-American experience largely abandoned the sociological or race relations interpretation. They adopted a more anthropological and psychological approach to the African-American past, a concern about black people as agents of history and not as helpless victims. They explored the interior lives of African Americans, their culture, and its antecedents in Africa. Ironically, it was the white anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits who insisted that African Americans had retained elements of African culture, while the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier argued that black people had been stripped of their past and started anew in the United States. The place of Africa loomed larger in the scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s, as historians studied emigration, black nationalism, religion, music, dance, folklore, and the family in the context of African persuasion.

In many respects, Benjamin Quarles, a venerable black historian at Morgan State University, originated the new writing of African-American history with the publication of Black Abolitionists (1969). Quarles wrote that the African American was abolition's "different drummer," a participant in, as well as a symbol of, the movement, and one of its pioneers. John W. Blassingame's The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972) soon followed with an original interpretation of slavery in which the slaves helped define the peculiar institution and possessed some discretion over the shape of their daily lives. The work of Barbara J. Fields, Eugene D. Genovese, Herbert G. Gutman, Vincent Harding, Nathan I. Huggins, Norrece T. Jones, Charles W. Joyner, Wilma King, Lawrence W. Levine, Daniel C. Littlefield, Leslie H. Owens, Albert J. Raboteau, Brenda Stevenson, Sterling Stuckey, Margaret Washington, Thomas L. Webber, and Peter H. Wood has broadened and deepened an understanding of slave life and culture. Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), in particular, influenced the study of the dialectical relationship between slave and master (and by extension blacks and whites) as one governed not by race relations but by reciprocal duties and obligations. This give-and-take in determining the status and condition of African Americans in slavery and freedom has been advanced in the work of Ira Berlin, David W. Blight, Eric Foner, Thomas C. Holt, James O. Horton, Gerald D. Jaynes, Leon F. Litwack, Waldo E. Martin, Nell I. Painter, James L. Roark, Willie Lee Rose, Julie Saville, and Joel Williamson.

The new African-American historiography has been applied to themes of migration, urbanization, the working class, and protest. Historians have examined the causes and consequences of black migration from the rural South to urban areas of the North and South, finding them to be primarily the result of family decisions and kinship networks more than outside forces. They have studied both the physical and the institutional ghetto. Segregation produced the former, while African Americans created the latter to meet their own religious, economic, cultural, political, and social needs. The ghetto of the early twentieth century was not necessarily a slum. It was often a vibrant community in which African Americans carried out their daily lives. Studies of black business development by Raymond Gavins, Alexa B. Henderson, Michael E. Lomax, Juliet E. K. Walker, Walter Weare, and Robert E. Weems Jr. have depicted that vibrancy.

A growing body of research on African Americans and European immigrants suggests that black workers enjoyed some advantages in education, skills, and language facility that eroded over time as immigrants organized labor along ethnic and racial lines. Although the Congress of Industrial Organizations' embrace of black workers during the late 1930s brought some absolute change for African Americans, there was little relative change in comparison with white workers. African Americans, moreover, experienced the Great Depression earlier and suffered longer than any other segment of the population. Historians such as John E. Bodnar, Dennis C. Dickerson, William H. Harris, Earl Lewis, August Meier and Elliott M. Rudwick, Richard B. Pierce, Christopher Reed, Nikki Taylor, Joe William Trotter Jr., and Lillian Williams have illuminated the fate of the black working class.

Although they have faced great odds in racism, segregation, lynching, disfranchisement, and discrimination, African Americans have been resilient in not succumbing to oppression. As James D. Anderson, Herbert Aptheker, Lerone Bennett Jr., Mary F. Berry, Richard J. M. Blackett, John H. Bracey Jr., John Henrik Clarke, John E. Fleming, V. P. Franklin, Vincent Harding, Robert A. Hill, Jonathan Scott Holloway, August Meier and Elliott M. Rudwick, Daryl Scott, Donald Spivey, Arvarh Strickland, and Quintard Taylor have shown, the protest tradition among African Americans has endured. One of the strong tenets of recent African-American historiography is that black people retained their integrity as a people despite the potential of slavery and racism to break them. They resisted brutalization, although they could not always avoid brutality. They fashioned a distinctive and viable culture in opposition to oppression. Their culture was rooted in Africa but given form and substance in the United States. Their tradition of resistance and protest burst forth in an unprecedented manner during the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Taylor Branch, Clayborne Carson, William H. Chafe, John Dittmer, David J. Garrow, Vincent Harding, Darlene Clark Hine, Steven F. Lawson, David L. Lewis, Manning Marable, August Meier and Elliott M. Rudwick, Charles Payne, Linda Reed, Harvard Sitkoff, Patricia Sullivan, Julius Thompson, and Robert Weisbrot have recorded the critical events, organizations, and personalities that constituted the "Second Reconstruction."

A younger generation of historians, such as Scot Brown, Rod Bush, Sundiata Cha-Jua, William Jelani Cobb, Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Winston Grady-Willis, Jeffrey Ogbar, and Komozi Woodward, has emerged during the early twenty-first century to explain the "postcivil rights era," and especially the rise of Black Power and black nationalism. African-American cultural history in the work of Kevin Gaines, Adam Green, Mitch Kachun, Robin D. G. Kelley, Nick Salvatore, William L. Van Deburg, and Craig Werner has taken on greater import to understand the global reach and influence of African-American art, dance, literature, and music.

Although African-American historiography has broken away from explaining the past as divine providence, revising the errors, omissions, and distortions of racist white writers, celebrating the contributions of famous black men to the growth and development of the United States, depicting the endless horrors of racism and segregation, and analyzing race relations, it has until recently had a blind spot. The new African-American historiography has studied black people as agents rather than as victims of the past but has, for some time, ignored the issue of gender. The work of Elsa Barkley Brown, Bettye Collier-Thomas, Gloria Dickinson, Sheila Flemming, Paula Giddings, Sharon Harley, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Darlene Clark Hine, Tera W. Hunter, Jacqueline Jones, Chana Kai Lee, Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, Barbara Ransby, Jacqueline Rouse, Stephanie Shaw, Ula Y. Taylor, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Deborah Gray White, and Rhonda Y. Williams has brought gender to the forefront of African-American historiography. As a result, fresh insight into the African-American past, the forebearers of black culture, and the builders of black progress has been gained. Gender has begun to take on greater compass than the study of black women as scholars have started to explore masculinity and black sexuality. The writing of African-American history has become more multidimensional as historians probe class, sexuality, color, gender, religion, region, and profession.

Growing immigration to the United States by black people from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and Central and South America has raised new questions about African Americans and the African diaspora. This new immigration has reinvigorated African-American culture and enriched the conversation about what it means to be an African American. Ralph Crowder, Thomas J. Davis, George Fredrickson, Michael Gomez, Robin D. G. Kelley, Manning Marable, Tony Martin, Brenda Gayle Plummer, and William R. Scott have expanded the scope of African-American history to embrace what Earl Lewis has referred to as "overlapping diasporas." This broader scope has included studying how the international position of the United States has affected the domestic civil rights movement in the work of Carol Anderson, Thomas Borstelmann, Mary L. Dudziak, and Penny Von Eschen.

Maghan Keita, Wilson J. Moses, and Clarence Walker have explored popular interpretations of African-American history and the concept of Afrocentrism as a challenge to universalism and as a quest for a distinctive black identity emanating from Africa. Given that there is no scientific certainty for the category of race, historians such as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Thomas C. Holt, Earl Lewis, and David Roediger have confronted the meaning of race as a broad framework that often obscures African-American multidimensionality.

From a field innovated by less than two dozen black historians prior to 1940, African-American historiography has grown to embrace a large corps of black and white scholars who have produced a new and exciting body of scholarship. The writing of African-American history has given voice and agency to a people for too long almost invisible, who were assumed to have no past worthy of study. African-American historiography has not only rescued the thought and action of black people over time and space in the United States, but it has also made the writing of U.S. history impossible without the voice and agency of African Americans.

See also Anthropology and Anthropologists; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Education; Franklin, John Hope; Frazier, Edward Franklin; Pennington, James W. C.; Quarles, Benjamin; Sociology; Woodson, Carter G.


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Harris, Robert L., Jr. "Coming of Age: The Transformation of Afro-American Historiography." Journal of Negro History 67, no. 2 (Summer 1982): 107121.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. "African American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race." Signs 17 (1992): 251274.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. The State of Afro-American History: Past, Present, and Future. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.

Holt, Thomas C. "African-American History." In The New American History, edited by Eric Foner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990; rev. and expanded ed., 1997.

Lewis, Earl. "To Turn As on a Pivot: Writing African Americans into a History of Overlapping Diasporas." American Historical Review 100 (1995): 765787.

Meier, August, and Elliott M. Rudwick. Black History and the Historical Profession, 19151980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Quarles, Benjamin. "Black History's Antebellum Origins." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 89 (1979): 89122.

Redding, Jay Saunders. "The Negro in American History: As Scholar, as Subject." In The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States, edited by Michael Kammen. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Thorpe, Earl E. "Philosophy of History: Sources, Truths, and Limitations." Quarterly Review of Higher Education Among Negroes 25, no. 3 (1957): 172185.

Thorpe, Earl E. Black Historians: A Critique. New York: Morrow, 1969.

Wood, Peter H. "I Did the Best I Could for My Day: The Study of Early Black History During the Second Reconstruction, 1960 to 1976." William and Mary Quarterly (3rd series) 35, no. 2 (1978): 185225.

robert l. harris jr. (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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Historians and Historiography, African American

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Historians and Historiography, African American