Black American history itself has a history. Because the history we read in books does not fall from the sky or get secreted by computers. It is something that is discovered, made and taught.
White Americans generally have little interest in black history:
- They see blacks and Africa as unimportant and therefore not worth knowing much about beyond a few self-serving stereotypes.
- They use history not to understand themselves and the world but to feel they are better than everyone else. A true black history threatens feel-good white history.
So blacks must uncover their own history.
It is harder than you think:
- Before 1865 few blacks could write – it was against the law to teach a slave to read and write – so precious little has been recorded about what they remembered of Africa and what they experienced in America.
- Before 1970 few could make a full-time living as black historians.
- From 1808 to 1950 blacks were almost completely cut off from Africa: in 1808 slaves stopped coming regularly from Africa and until at least 1950 the white rulers of Africa kept out most Black Americans as possible troublemakers.
The last one is huge: it meant blacks had to accept what whites told them about Africa, about where they came from: that it was a dark continent full of naked savages incapable of civilization. So apart from Egypt and Ethiopia they mostly avoided the subject of Africa altogether.
In the early 1800s black history was little more than the lives of notable blacks. It was not till the late 1800s and early 1900s that men like George Washington Williams, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson and Arthur Schomburg began to study and write about black history in a more thoroughgoing way. Du Bois himself had a PhD in history from Harvard.
Schomburg gathered everything he could find about blacks and by blacks – the beginnings of what is now the Schomburg Center in Harlem. Because he was from Puerto Rico he saw Black American history as part of the larger history of the African Diaspora.
Both Schomburg and Woodson saw true black history as a way to free blacks from the racist lies of white people.
In the 1920s blacks began to take an interest in Africa, but it was not till the 1960s that they could freely go there themselves. They found out that West Africa, where most of them are from, was not full of naked savages like white people said. In fact before whites came and screwed up everything it had civilizations of its own, like the Mali and Songhay empires. It had great seats of learning, like Timbuktu, and cities larger than any in England of the time.
It was not till the 1970s, with black students pushing for universities to teach African American studies, that black history has had the money and manpower behind it to make solid, steady progress. For example, it was not till the 1990s that much was written about the slave trade – white historians had taken little interest in it.
- Mali Empire
- The Transatlantic slave trade
- Cheikh Anta Diop
- Black History Month – which grew out of Woodson’s Negro History Week
- race conscious
- internalized racism
- The white lens