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From the Viewpoints column in the November 1998 Perspectives

Dilemmas in Teaching African American History

Robert L. Harris Jr., November 1998

A central paradox of the black experience in America is that it has been a separate entity, yet inseparable from the fabric of American life. One of the major dilemmas in teaching African American history is this paradox of being "apart from" while at the same time "a part of" the United States. For almost 90 percent of the time that African Americans have lived in the United States or the North American colonies, taking 1619 as a starting point and the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a culmination, they have basically constituted "a nation within a nation." Although there have been points of intersection, African Americans have generally been born, educated, baptized, socialized, and buried at some distance removed from the dominant society.

This distance, indeed this segregation, has informed the community and culture studies that characterize much of the writing and teaching of African American history. Over the past four decades—longer if you count such works as Carter G. Woodson's History of the Negro Church (1921); Alrutheus A. Taylor's The Negro in Tennessee, 1865–1880 (1941); Lorenzo J. Greene's The Negro in Colonial New England (1942); and John Hope Franklin's The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (1943)—research in African American history has focused on the black community and the creation of a distinctive African American culture. I have hesitated about including works written prior to the 1960s because while they identified the accomplishments of black communities before and after the Civil War, they did not consciously seek to identify a viable African American culture.

The acknowledgment and acceptance of a distinctive African American culture had to await the liberation of both African Americans from racial segregation in the United States and Africans from colonization in Africa. Today there is little debate about the existence of a viable African American culture, but this has not always been the case. To justify liberation from racial segregation, many historians found it necessary to portray African Americans as quintessential Americans. It was only on the cusp of the civil rights, decolonization, and Black Power movements that historians began to define a distinct African American culture. Black historian W.E.B. Du Bois and white anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits had provided the outlines of a singular African American culture, but it took desegregation at home and decolonization abroad for historians to start filling in those outlines.

The Roots of Racial Identity

To understand the lineaments of African American culture, we begin, of course, in Africa—a vast and complex continent with numerous languages and societies. Some similarities exist across African societies, but we should avoid simplifying Africa when teaching the African background. Too often there is a tendency to romanticize an idyllic African past free from competition, exploitation, and inequality. There is little sense of internal ethnic and national conflict before the intrusion of Europeans, nor much exploration of African culpability for the slave trade.

Examining the African antecedents of African American culture provides a good opportunity for exploring the idea of race as a social and political construction. Many students see race as immutable, a fixed concept that has changed little over time. They assume that because "white" historically has meant "good" and "black" has meant "evil," Europeans have always been biased against Africans and that racism today is just an extension of ancient practices. To combat this, we must look past contemporary perceptions of "Europe" and "Africa." We need to help students understand that racial classification as a scientific concept is an 18th-century invention. The designations "European" and "African" for distinguishing groups of people gained relevance only in the 19th century and took on greater significance in this country than in Europe and Africa themselves. Those we think of as Germans or Italians are more likely to identify themselves as Bavarians, Rhinelanders, or Prussians or Sicilians, Sardinians, or Tuscanites. Those who call themselves Akan, Ashanti, Ewe, Igbo, Wolof, and Yoruba we simply designate as Africans. Ethnic and national identity, which includes distinctions of language and culture, historically has been more important than continental identity.

Various strands of West African societies merged in the encounter with American society to form the African American. African Americans were held at length from the dominant society for some 350 years, rather than being absorbed into mainstream culture. The melting pot as a metaphor simply didn't work for African Americans because they weren't allowed into the pot. Paradoxically, African Americans had a profound influence on mainstream culture. In the South, especially, it is difficult to determine what is Southern and what is African American in speech, manner, cuisine, architecture, religion, music, dance, or folklore. The African American imprint despite being held at bay is deeply imbedded within American culture. As W.E.B. Du Bois poignantly put the question in his masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk (1903), "Would America have been America without her Negro people?"

Catastrophic vs. Survivalist Interpretation

In answering that question both for African Americans and for the nation as a whole, we have to strike a balance between what sociologist Orlando Patterson has defined as the catastrophic and the survivalist interpretations of the African American past.1 The catastrophic interpretation emphasizes what has been done to black people. It highlights the horrors of the slave trade, slavery, segregation, second-class citizenship, racism, and inequality. I find that most white students resonate more to this approach. They are disturbed by the dominant society's victimization of African Americans. Some of them even find it difficult to accept that in the "land of the free and the home of the brave," African Americans were so fundamentally denied their humanity, let alone their rights as American citizens. The survivalist interpretation, on the other hand, promotes black achievement despite the odds. Here, black students and other students of color resonate more to black resistance and the development of a distinctive voice. Some students tend to deny the damaging effects of racial oppression. This dichotomy, not always falling rigidly along racial lines, sets up a classroom dynamic that can be explored to benefit a better understanding of historical interpretation and analysis.

For years, culture was ignored as African American historians wrote about and taught the injustices heaped on black people. For many historians, this approach was important to justify emancipation and racial equality. As black resistance came to the fore during the Civil Rights era, and as self-determining black voices emerged during the Black Power movement, historians began to study African American culture more closely. As Joe W. Trotter has suggested, community and culture studies delineating the common struggles and victories of African Americans dominated much of the writing in the field until the late 1980s.2 But in their efforts to demonstrate common bonds among African Americans, the community studies generally overshadowed issues of class, gender, and sexuality. Black or African American more often than not meant male, usually middle class, and definitely heterosexual.

The story of black communities working together, protecting themselves from the slings and arrows of racism, is almost idyllic, evoking romantic images of the past. In describing a time when urban communities were ghettoes but not slums, when black neighborhoods were fairly self-sufficient with black owned and operated businesses, it is difficult not to leave an impression of the "good old days" before desegregation.

As students contrast Harlem, the south side of Chicago, and Auburn Avenue in Atlanta today with their thriving counterparts in the past, those black communities become very attractive even within the context of Jim Crow. As students study the state of education for many black inner city youth today, there is a lingering question of whether African Americans received better education in the segregated schools of the past. Moreover, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court challenge, in its effort to prove damage and to secure a court remedy, placed a badge of inferiority on black youth. Most civil rights advocates assumed that desegregation would be reciprocal, but it turned into a one-way street running away from black communities. Black owned and operated hotels, restaurants, insurance companies, and newspapers lost their black clientele and attracted few if any white customers. For many black students today, segregation begins to look better than integration. Even some prominent black intellectuals have concluded that inner cities are bleak because the talented tenth and the middle class have abandoned them. They contend that times were much better when the talented tenth lived in the "village" helping each other and inspiring the young.

In particular, economic changes within American society demonstrate how inseparable African American history is from American history. The growing rust belt region of the old industrial heartland has had a devastating effect on African Americans. Outsourcing manufacturing and even commercial activities like check sorting to foreign countries has negatively affected black employment. The socioeconomic fortunes of African Americans are inextricably linked to the progress of the United States. At the same time, African American culture, especially music, sport, dance, and dress, enjoys international attention. Here, we have the paradox of a growing black middle class and simultaneously a growing black underclass. Although African American culture undergirds popular culture nationally and internationally, African Americans still face racial discrimination.

Too Much Minority History?

Patricia Nelson Limerick, at an earlier American Historical Association meeting and in Perspectives, called into question overemphasizing the study of minority culture. She asked, "Is a scholarly preoccupation with culture and cultural distinctiveness causing us to fudge some of the very basic questions about power and economic dominance?"3 Many recent studies document how dispossessed groups—workers, women, racial and ethnic minorities—have displayed "a significant degree of self-determining agency" in their family structures, religious practices, folk expressions, and identity. But is this culture they developed the consolation prize for oppression? Culture in its broadest sense is a way of life of a people or a time period. There has been a tendency to magnify ordinary acts of resistance into challenges to the political order. How much credit should we give to basically private acts of resistance not leading to active protest and direct action against the dominant society or resulting in larger movements for change? Many students feel comfortable identifying and residing in their own cultural zones. Isolation is their form of resistance, but it accepts more than it challenges the status quo. In large measure, our zeal in examining the agency of the oppressed has deflected attention from the actions of the oppressors.

The dilemma for teaching African American history is how to select an appropriate medium; in other words, which lens to use at what times, for understanding the African American past. For too long, we examined African Americans through the lens of the dominant society and in the process imposed interpretations on their thoughts and activities that muted black voices and misconstrued their actions. More recently, we have focused the lens on African Americans but have lost sight of the dominant society. We understand a lot more about black people, their travails and triumphs, but we do not understand as much about the context within which they have struggled for racial equality.

Nell Irvin Painter, for example, has recently called for reexamining slavery and the psychological costs of enslavement. She has identified child abuse, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, rape, and beatings as "soul murder" that lowered self-esteem, repressed anger, compromised identity, suppressed vitality and creativity, instilled self-hatred, and often generated identification with the person inflicting the pain. Because slaves and black people in general have been treated as one group, there have been few studies of individual psyches. Painter suggests that while African Americans have been accorded community and culture, they have been robbed of psychology. In calling for greater study of the psychic costs of slavery, she is not reviving Stanley Elkins's thesis of infantilization. She agrees with post-Elkins research that the family, and religious beliefs in particular, enabled slaves to reject the propaganda of white supremacy and black inferiority. But she does maintain that brutalization of slaves, especially women and children, had consequences for slaves, slaveholders, slaveholders' families, and ultimately society as a whole. She broadens the searchlight to illuminate not only the slave but also the slaveholders and the whole society that embraced slavery.4

That is part of our challenge in teaching African American history. How do we focus our searchlight for maximum illumination and understanding? If we focus primarily on the black community and its distinctive culture, do we overshadow the dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality? Do we miss intersections with the larger society? Do we ignore the powerful effect that African Americans and their presence have had on America and that America has had on them?

—Robert L. Harris Jr. is associate professor of African American history at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University. He is the author of the AHA pamphlet, Teaching African American History.

Notes

1. Orlando Patterson, "Rethinking Black History," Harvard Educational Review 41:3 (August 1971), 297–315.

2. Joe W. Trotter, "African-American History: Origins, Development, and Current State of the Field," OAH Magazine of History 7:4 (summer 1993), 12–18.

3. Patricia Nelson Limerick, "Has Minority History Transformed the Historical Discourse?" Perspectives 35:8 (November 1997), 33–34.

4. Nell Irvin Painter, "Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting," in Linda K. Kerber et al., eds., U.S. History as Women's History (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995), 125–46.