Two Popular Black Historians and Their Unpopular Works on Slavery
History that glorifies the past is vital but it shouldn’t dominate the discourse
There’s an African proverb that goes: Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter. The proverb implies history is written by the victors, but it also gives the “lion historian” a specific task — to glorify the lion. “Glorifiers of the past” are the first type of historians that emerge from the oppressed.
In 1879 Martin R. Delany published: The Origin of Races and Color. The back cover of a modern copy explains: Delany wrote in opposition to an oppressive intellectualism that used Darwin’s thesis ‘survival of the fittest’ to support demented theories of black inferiority. Delany believed knowledge of one’s past was essential and it was necessary to inspire self-improvement.
In 1893 Rev. Rufus Lewis Perry published: The Cushite, or The Descendants of Ham. Perry’s book was in response to a racist doctrine known as “The Curse of Ham”. The curse stated the descendants of Noah’s son Ham (The black race) would be enslaved by the descendants of Noah’s son Japheth (The white race). Perry wrote: During the period of American slavery, no historian could write a true record of the sons of Ham. All were against the Negro and suppressed the facts of the Negro’s ancient greatness. In those days the white man wrote for white men; and now the black man must write for black men, and give [the black race] its proper rank among the historical peoples of the earth.
In 1896 the US Supreme Court legalized segregation. Since segregation created an inferiority complex inside of the black population, black historians felt duty bound to continue writing history that instilled a sense of pride in black people throughout the 20th century.
In the 1920’s historian Carter G. Woodson created Negro history week to celebrate the achievements of the Negro. In the 1930’s W.E.B. Dubois wrote the history of Black Reconstruction. In the 1940’s journalist J.A. Rogers published a two-volume history called The World’s Great Men of Color. In the 1960’s Historian Lerone Bennett Jr. published: Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro 1619–1962. In the 1970’s colleges and Universities created Black Studies programs. Then in the 1980’s Afrocentric scholarship emerged, which took “glorification of the black past” to controversial levels by claiming Western Civilization stole everything from architecture to philosophy from Africa. Afrocentric historians creating a mythology about blacks in antiquity wasn’t what the African proverb had in mind.
History that “glorifies the past” to produce dignity, pride, and cultural appreciation will always be important. However, if it dominates the discourse other lessons of history, which are just as vital, do not get learned.
For example, there are two lesser-known works by two of the historians I previously mentioned that don’t glorify the past. These works reveal aspects of American slavery that are purposely left out of contemporary narratives, but are vital for a complete understanding of the subject.
Before Carter G Woodson created Negro History Week, he wrote a small book that documented the number of free Negro owners of slaves in the United States in 1830. Woodson explained he took on the study of the free Negro because it was a forgotten group and “person’s supposedly well informed in history are surprised to learn that about a half a million Negroes were free prior to the emancipation in 1865”, and many of those free Negroes owned slaves.
In 1969 Lerone Bennett Jr. published a feature in Ebony magazine called: White Servitude in America. He wrote: When the cataracts of whiteness are removed from our eyes, and we look with unclouded vision on the bloody shadows of the American past, we will recognize for the first time that Afro-Americans, who was so often second in freedom, was also second in slavery. The story of how the white planter reduced white people to servitude, before stretching out his hand to Ethiopia, has never been told because white historians find white servitude embarrassing and prefer to dwell on black bondage.
Today, we have activists shouting “America has never come to grips with the legacy of slavery”, but — in all fairness — neither have they.