Negro History and Culture
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
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
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.
Negro autobiographies have sometimes ranked among the classic
there is Booker T. Washington’s
From Slavery; James Weldon Johnson’s
This Way (his famous
of an Ex-Coloured Man is fictional); James D.
of the Handicap,
Way from Home; Langston Hughes’
Big Sea; Du Bois’
of Dawn (and, in a sense, several earlier books,
including the tremendously influential
Souls of Black Folk).]
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).
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.
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 )]
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.
movement was given impetus in 1915 by the organization of
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.
Reddick puts it: “…
the history of Negro historiography falls into two divisions,
before Woodson and after
New Interpretation for Negro History,”
The Journal of Negro History [January, 1937]. p. 21.)]
articles in the Journal meet all standards of historical scholarship, at least as
much as in other historical journals.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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
An American Dilemma:
The Negro Problem & Modern Democracy
• Harper &
Brothers, Inc. •
* * *
* * * * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous
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
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
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,
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.
* * *
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” . . .
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.
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
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
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 17 April 2012