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Not only have jazz, the blues, and tap-dancing captured the popular entertainment world, but spirituals

have been adjudged “American only folk music,” and a few Negro actors, singers and poets have been counted

among the best.   In certain branches of sports, too, Negroes have come out on top.  Because of white applause,

Negroes can take heart in these achievements and can use them to protest against discrimination.



Negro History and Culture

By Gunnar Myrdal


The ‘twenties and ‘thirties also saw the rapid growth of a movement to discover a cultural tradition for American Negroes.  When Garvey exalted the historical background of the Negro people, he stole weapons from his enemies, the Negro intellectuals.

For a long time, even before the Civil War, diligent work had been going to provide the Negro people with a respectable past.  In a sense the numerous slave biographies—the most important of which was Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass—served such a purpose.  Any Negro who emerges by prominence has usually had a remarkable life. And autobiographies have always played an important role among Negro writings.  

[These Negro autobiographies have sometimes ranked among the classic American autobiographies.  Besides Douglass’ Autobiography, there is Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery; James Weldon Johnson’s Along This Way (his famous Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is fictional); James D. Corrother’s In Spite of the  Handicap, Claude McKay’s A Long Way from Home; Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea; Du Bois’ Dusk of Dawn (and, in a sense, several earlier books, including the tremendously influential The Souls of Black Folk).]

Still more directly the searching of historical sources to unveil the deeds of Negroes in the American Revolution and in other American wars part of this movement.  So is also the eager attempt to reveal partial Negro ancestry of prominent individuals all over the world (Pushkin, Dumas, Alexander Hamilton and others).

Much of all this is zealous dilettantism, sometimes of a quite fantastic nature.  But increasingly it is coming under the control of historical methods of research.  White historians have usually been biased by their preconceptions about the Negroes’ inherent inferiority and by the specific rationalization needs these preconceptions have been serving. 

[An excellent illustration of the “protest” nature of Negro history is given by the fact that one of the popular books of this type, has the title The Negro, Too, in American History (by Merl R. Eppse [1939])]

Even apart from this, they have not had much interest in the Negroes except as objects of white exploitation and contests.  The Negro people have, in their hands, become more a part of the natural resources or the scenery of the country.  Negro historians see tasks both in rectifying wrong notions of the white historians and in concentrating upon the neglected aspects of the Negroes’ history.  

This movement was given impetus in 1915 by the organization of The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and its chief publication, The Journal of Negro History.  The moving spirit behind the organization, and the editor of the Journal, is Dr. Carter G. Woodson. 

[Dr. Woodson is also the leader of the whole modern Negro History movement.  Lawrence Reddick puts it:  “… the history of Negro historiography falls into two divisions, before Woodson and after Woodson.”  (“A New Interpretation for Negro History,”  The Journal of Negro History [January, 1937]. p. 21.)]

The articles in the Journal meet all standards of historical scholarship, at least as much as in other historical journals.

In spite of all scholarly pretenses and accomplishments, this movement is basically an expression of the Negro protest.  Its avowed purpose is to enhance self-respect and race-respect among Negroes by substituting a belief in race achievements for the traditional belief in race inferiority.  

As Reddick put it, “…Negro History is quite different from the study of the Negro.  Frankly, the former differs from the latter is that Negro History has a purpose which is built upon a faith.”

Propagandistic activities go on side by side with the scholarly ones.  Various devices are used to bring the findings of historical research before the Negro public.  Since 1937, the Association has been publishing the Negro History Bulletin which is for a wider audience than the scholarly Journal of Negro History.  Summaries of articles from both journals in popular style are furnished Negro newspapers.  Popular pamphlets and books are sold by house-to-house agents in the Negro community.  Displays are prepared for various types of Negro gatherings.  

Contact is made with certain types of Negro clubs.  Perhaps the most successful single device is “Negro History Week,” during which the written and spoken word is applied with concentrated effort, especially to Negro school children.  If the teacher is Negro and at all aware on the history of the Negro throughout the year, but during Negro History Week, the Association makes a special effort to reach all Negro children.

Just as the white American school child is taught American history from the point of view of the American chauvinist, the Negro school child is to see it from the point of view of the black racialist.31

When we call the activities of the Negro History movement “propaganda,” we do not mean to imply that there is any distortion in the facts presented:  Excellent historical research has accompanied the efforts to publicize it.  But there has been a definite distortion in the emphasis and the perspective given the facts:  mediocrities have been expanded into “great men”; cultural achievements which no better—and no worse—than any others are placed on a pinnacle; minor historical events are magnified into crises.  This seems entirely excusable, however, in view of the greater distortion and falsification of the facts in the writings of white historians.  

As propaganda, “Negro history” serves the same purpose for historical periods as the Negro newspapers serve for contemporary life:  they both serve as a counterpoison to the false and belittling treatment of the Negro newspapers and books written by whites.

In one phase of their activities, Negro historians have the support of some white scientists.  This is in the field of African culture. For which anthropologists have recently manifested a new appreciation.  It was a basic means of satisfying white men’s needs to justify slavery and white superiority that the “dark continent” be regarded as a place of cultureless savagery.  

This tradition of African inferiority has continued in the white world long after the American Indian, the Polynesian, and the Stone Age man were given applause for high cultural achievement.  Only recently have even the anthropologists realized that African Negroes have surpassed most other pre-literate groups in at least the fields of government, law and technology.  

The general white public still does not realize this, but during the New Negro movement of the 1920’s there developed something of an appreciation for modified African music and art.  

One white anthropologist, Melville J. Herskovits, has recently rendered yeoman service to the Negro History propagandists.  He has not only made excellent field studies of certain African and West Indian Negro groups, but has written a general book to glorify African culture generally and to show how it has survived in the American Negro community.  He has avowedly done this to give the Negro confidence in himself and to give the white man less “reason” to have race prejudice.

To give the Negro an appreciation of his part is to endow him with the confidence in his own position in this country and in the world which he must have, and which he can best attain when he has available a foundation of scientific fact concerning the ancestral cultures of Africa and the survivals of Africanisms in the New World.  And it must again be emphasized that when such a body of facts, solidly grounded, is established, a ferment must follow, when this information is diffused over the population as a whole, will influence opinion in general concerning Negro abilities and potentialities, and thus contribute to a lessening of interracial tensions.

Aside from the question of admiring their past achievements, Negroes are faced with the question of whether they should attempt to build morale by glorifying their present achievements or attempt to raise standards by criticizing the present low ones.  

Almost all Negroes, at least among the youth, are agreed that some of the traits for which they are praised by Southern whites (loyalty, tractability, happy-go-luckiness) are not the traits of which they should be primarily proud. But there are other alleged Negro traits that white men praise which present more of a dilemma to Negroes.  These are the so-called special Negroes aptitudes for music, art, poetry and the dance.  

Not only have jazz, the blues, and tap-dancing captured the popular entertainment world, but spirituals have been adjudged “American only folk music,” and a few Negro actors, singers and poets have been counted among the best.   In certain branches of sports, too, Negroes have come out on top.  Because of white applause, Negroes can take heart in these achievements and can use them to protest against discrimination.

But some Negroes have doubts about some of these things.  They feel that it is unwise for Negroes to specialize in so few fields, but rather that they should put more effort into breaking into new fields.  They feel that there is something of a “double standard” when the white man applauds—that some lesser Negro poets and actors are getting applause because they are Negroes rather than because they have outranked the whites in free competition.  

They know that achievements in some of these fields merely strengthen the harmful stereotypes, that Negroes are innately more emotional and unrestrained and animal-like.  They believe that the spirituals are a “badge of slavery” and retain the memories of slavery in both whites and Negroes, and that emphasis on things African is emphasis on the primitive background of Negroes.  Finally, they are afraid of the “parallel civilizations” theory held by some whites:  that Negroes should retain “their own” cultural heritage and not lose it for the general American culture.

[Those achievements also encourage some Negroes and help build up a “tradition of success,” the lack of which has helped to keep Negroes down in the past.]

All these things—feels this small group of Negroes, mainly intellectuals—will not redound to the ultimate advantage of Negroes but will tie them more strongly into a subordinate position.  But even they, like the rest of the Negroes, take vicarious satisfaction in the present-day achievements of individual Negroes, and in so doing express their protest against their subordinate caste position.

Source: Gunnar  Myral   An American Dilemma:  The Negro Problem & Modern Democracy    Harper & Brothers, Inc.    NY: 1944

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

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By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 17 April 2012




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