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Summer 2001
   
Toward a Usable Black History
John H. McWhorter
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You brought me here in CHAINS! You brought me here in CHAINS!" James Baldwin exclaimed to a white interviewer in the late 1960s, summing up the sense of our history that most blacks have. Yes, we pay lip service to our having "survived" in this country, but the image most resonant to us is being brought here packed in ships, treated like animals for 250 years, and pushed to the margins of society for the next 100. Many black thinkers downplay even the "survival," depicting modern black America as a variation on slavery and dismissing the progress we've made since the 1960s by condemning successful blacks as "house niggers." The result: for most of us, "black history" summons images of endless degradation—slavery, the quick demise of Reconstruction, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Klan, lynchings, the beatings of civil rights activists, Dred Scott, Emmett Till.

Not to attend to such things would be folly; but a history only of horrors cannot inspire. What could be more demoralizing than Mba Mbulu's Ten Lessons: An Introduction to Black History, for example, a chronicle mostly of slavery and segregation, with "White People's Attacks on Other People" and "Back in Our Place" as typical chapter titles? Except for a little dollop of blacks' contributions to what is called "White History," the overall message is a grim saga of victimization. This kind of history is deeply damaging to blacks. When "Learn your history" means "Don't get fooled by superficial changes," today's New York City Street Crimes Unit can't be distinguished from yesterday's Bull Connor, and our aggrieved despair over our sense of disinclusion from the national fabric remains as sharp as ever. Could any people find inner peace when taught to think of their own society as their enemy?

Our question, then, is whether black history offers us lessons beyond teaching us that we are eternally strangers in our own land. This is a momentous question: we can only feel a visceral sense of legitimacy on our own soil when black identity is not founded on a sense of whites as the enemy without—when we feel American first and black second, which is far from the case today. Today's diversity fans will object that this goal smacks of the erasure of a culture. And in a way, they are correct: once wariness between groups disappears, people marry across ethnic lines and create a new hybrid people. History records no exceptions; love knows no bounds.

In real life, the "salad bowl" metaphor that diversity fans use to describe our proper relation to American life can only describe a temporary stage and shouldn't be our ultimate goal. To be sure, many blacks, and many white fellow travelers, see the competing "melting pot" metaphor as threatening. But since only assimilation will give black Americans a sense of America as a homeland rather than a place of temporary residence, a truly useful black history must teach black Americans that the melting pot is possible and desirable. Yes, residual racism persists in America and must be identified and expunged. But a black history whose main message is "Watch out!" sows cynicism and parochialism and can only point us backward. The history blacks learn must prepare us to take advantage of the ever richer opportunities available to us rather than to resist them as selling out to the Man.

Yet we were indeed brought here in chains. Is there anything in our deeply troubled story in America to give us the courage to get past this and embrace becoming, to the depths of our being, American?

We'll never do it by one popular approach black historians have taken. The sense that what has happened to us in this country is too demoralizing to focus on has led them to parse our time here as a gloomy second act, after a glorious and untainted first act in Mother Africa.

Hence Kwanzaa, for example, created in 1966 by Afrocentric scholar-activist Maulana Karenga and modeled on African harvest celebrations. It is founded on seven guiding principles with Swahili names, most stressing collectivist ideas, from unity (umoja) and collective responsibility (ujima) to cooperative economics (ujamaa). Yet after 35 years, few black Americans practice Kwanzaa; Hallmark may have released a line of Kwanzaa cards, but I would venture that 19 out of 20 blacks would draw a blank on the seven principles, and Christmas remains as central to the black experience as it was in 1966.

Let's face it: calls to found our identities upon Mother Africa are asking us to pretend to feel living kinship with people who speak languages we do not know, who neither move, dance, cook, sing, nor view the world the way we do. We are asked to adopt a "culture" that never existed: the monocultural conception of "Africa" is a post-colonial construction, essentializing the peoples of an enormous continent home to over 1,000 languages, with even Swahili spoken in only eight of the more than 50 African nations. Afrocentrists here fall prey to the American tendency to see Africa as a continent of indistinguishable "black people," but the Africans who sold one another into slavery were certainly under no illusion that "black" overrode cultural differences. For a descendant of Sierra Leoneans to learn Swahili and cherry-pick aspects of assorted African cultures is like a white American of Welsh ancestry slipping on some Dutch clogs and breaking into a Russian trépak, while exclaiming in Portuguese that, after all, "Europe is Europe."

Since most black Americans cannot know exactly what parts of Africa they trace to, perhaps pan-Africanism is the best we can do. But the artificiality remains. Culture sits in the heart; a holiday made up at someone's desk a few decades ago cannot help but sit in the head. Kwanzaa asks the black car salesman in Chicago to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest in a Ugandan village. Obviously, we—as a people so deeply American—need something beyond this.

Then there is the Afrocentric history school, founded on the idea that the ancient Egyptians were black, that the ancient Greeks stole their philosophy from Egypt, and that the Western intellectual heritage was therefore a black creation. Advocates cherish this idea as giving black students a sense of historical importance, but Afrocentric history is false, based on laughably sloppy scholarship. Mary Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa has refuted all of its tenets, and, despite the predictable cries of racism and right-wing backlash, no Afrocentric historian has presented a factual rebuttal. The facts are simply too clear to refute.

Afrocentric history takes us away from becoming fully American in another way, too. It is difficult to feel truly a member of a society that you suspect considers you slightly dim. How realistic is it to expect to be accepted as mental equals, when blacks presenting themselves as "professors" frame our history as a mythical narrative, as if we were preliterate hunter-gatherers? And especially when the narrative is a tissue of fabrications anyway, how constructive is it to foist upon us a "history" that only heightens our sense of embattlement and alienation?

Black Americans will never again live in Africa; our connection to it will remain largely gestural. Charting that connection is valuable in itself: I have devoted much of my own academic career to doing this on the topic of Creole languages. But beyond the ceremonial and the academic, a conception of ourselves as balefully conflicted victims of a diaspora from an alien continent will serve no purpose in giving us a sense of rootedness in the only country we will ever know as home.

Why can't we get that sense from the pantheon of black heroes amply celebrated in TV documentaries or in Black History Month—upgraded from what used to be a week? The truth is that the big pictures of Harriet Tubman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, Medgar Evers, and so on that festoon urban public libraries every February, the "Great Blacks in History" calendars hanging in the typical black barbershop, and children's books like the endlessly reprinted Color Me Brown are about as inspirational to most blacks as Mount Rushmore is to most whites. We genuflect—but we do not feel.

The reasons for this are local to our moment. Because many black Americans today have drunk in a conception of racism as a perpetual obstacle rather than a surmountable inconvenience, they see black heroes less as inspirations than as exceptions to the rule. Sure, they admire Harriet Tubman; but it is a different thing to transform this formal esteem into a sense of individual empowerment, when so many modern black thinkers and leaders insist that black success is merely a matter of a few tokens let through a crack in the door. Instead of being moved by our heroes, we see them as beside the point.

Furthermore, today's sense that "real" black people define themselves against the mainstream has a way of blunting the inspiration that blacks once derived from figures like Marian Anderson and George Washington Carver, who made their mark in equaling whites in a race-neutral activity. In a black popular culture that celebrates rebellion, that enshrines as "authentic" the antisocial tendencies that early civil rights leaders deplored, it is not an accident that Malcolm X is the most beloved black figure of the past among young blacks. Within our Zeitgeist, Phillis Wheatley's ability to write classical poetry in English after having been born in Africa and taken into slavery elicits respect but not identification. After 1960s radicals lambasted Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks for conforming to "white" norms, any aspiring black poet was unlikely to seek inspiration from an ancestor who took her cue from the likes of Alexander Pope.

If black history in America really had been a mere matter of a few superstars rising above a vale of tears, then our past would be of little genuine use to us, and the best we could do would be to counsel spiritual fortitude. But in fact, ordinary blacks, bonding together on the communal level like all successful immigrant groups, have forged spectacular successes in America. A pernicious ideological tradition, dismissive of the power of human agency and romanticizing failure, has painted over glorious aspects of blacks' story in America with dutiful recitations of the horrors and setbacks, hoodwinking blacks into thinking that it was ever thus.

Urban black business districts will serve as Exhibit A in a new black history, an antidote to the view that between the demise of Reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance there's little but lynching and Plessy v. Ferguson. During this very period, blacks were building thriving commercial districts of their own. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has remarked: "What really captivated me was that in the all-black world of Amos 'n' Andy . . . there was an all-black department store, owned and operated by black attendants for a black clientele." Ideally, more blacks would know that such worlds-within-a-world actually existed.

Chicago's "Bronzeville" is a handy example. As the city industrialized after 1875, blacks occupied a three-by-15-block enclave on the South Side, and the Great Migration from the South swelled the black population to 109,548 by 1920. Bronzeville, also known as "Black Metropolis," was home to several black newspapers, including the Bee, which occupied a magnificent Art Deco building, and the Defender, a publication of national influence, whose editorials urging blacks to migrate from the South were a major spur for the Great Migration itself. The literary-minded of Bronzeville also had such news magazines available to them as The Half-Century and The Light.

It was said that if you held up a horn at State and 35th, it would play itself because of the musical winds always blowing. Bronzeville was a leading center of innovation in jazz, nurturing Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Earl "Fatha" Hines. Oscar Micheaux's film company, producing a pioneering oeuvre of "race movies," was based not in New York or Hollywood but Bronzeville.

For all the jazz and journalism, though, at the end of the day, the business of Bronzeville was business: there were 731 business establishments in 1917, in 61 different lines of work. Of several banks, the most prominent was the Binga State Bank founded in 1908, Jesse Binga having begun with a coal, oil, and gas wagon and parlayed this into realty investments. Many other Bronzeville blacks purchased real estate just as avidly, amassing holdings that totaled $100 million by 1929. Several magnificent buildings besides the one housing the Bee ornamented Bronzeville, including the Overton Hygienic—which contained a cosmetics firm, a life-insurance company, a major bank, and a drugstore—and the seven-floor Knights of Pythias building, put up by one of the district's innumerable lodges (the inspiration for the Mystic Knights of the Sea on Amos 'n' Andy, which took place in Chicago in its original incarnation). The district boasted seven insurance companies, 106 lawyers, and several hotels, including "The Finest Colored Hotel in the World," the Hotel Brookmont.

This was a thriving civic community, supporting branches of various civic organizations, including a YMCA settlement house that ran job-training programs. There were no fewer than 192 churches in Bronzeville by 1929, the flagship being Olivet Baptist with 10,000 members. Bronzeville churches stressed community uplift; they ran lodging facilities for new arrivals from the South and employment agencies to shunt them into the workforce. Olivet alone had 53 departments devoted to community programs. Bronzeville produced several political leaders, including the first black congressman since Reconstruction, Oscar DePriest. Provident was one of the top black hospitals in the country, employing many of black Chicago's (by 1929) 176 doctors and running a nursing school. One of Provident's founders was the extraordinary Daniel Hale Williams, who was the first doctor in America to operate upon the human heart and the only black doctor among the 100 charter members of the American College of Surgeons.

Bronzeville's leaders, clearly, had their eyes on community stability and self-sufficiency. As uncultivated new arrivals from the rural South flooded the city after the 1890s, the black middle class did not cherish them as more "authentic" versions of themselves; they unequivocally saw themselves as models for the new masses. Walters African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church's pastor William A. Blackwell matter-of-factly noted that the migrants, "while speaking the same language as we do, are in many cases little more accustomed to the freedom of this city, the habits and customs of our people, than is the newly arrived peasant from Europe. These people must be amalgamated and assimilated." There was no question of adopting working-class ambivalence toward striving, no question of teaching the district's residents to distrust black successes as "selling out." Quite the contrary: in 1929, a chronicle of Bronzeville's rise counseled, "The Old Negro teaches his children to fear an authoritative white person and to disrespect intelligent and cultured persons of their own race in the same position; the New Negro teaches his children to fear no one and to respect every one worthy of respect."

The New Negro certainly didn't romanticize the black criminal as a martyr, either, despite whites' restriction of blacks to menial jobs until well into the teens. Bronzeville's civic organizations agitated constantly for cleaning up seedy streets and disciplining criminals for the benefit of the community. In 2000, Jesse Jackson decried as "racist" the suspension of black Decatur teenagers who had engaged in a brawl in the stands during a football game. In telling contrast, Dr. George C. Hall of the Chicago National Urban League branch complained in 1917: "The delinquent colored boy or girl who is taken to the juvenile court is turned out again on probation to learn more. If Chicago lacks the vision to see ahead, it will reap the harvest of fostering a kindergarten on the streets where gamins learn crime."

Nor was Bronzeville a fluke: the all-black world now so often considered a fantasy in Amos 'n' Andy also existed in West Baltimore, Atlanta's Auburn Avenue district, Washington, D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, and elsewhere.

A usable black history can't avoid recounting the demise of these districts. It must cover the race riot that destroyed Tulsa's Greenwood district and the Great Depression's effect on Bronzeville. But simply to treat these districts as an object lesson in white malevolence will extinguish the soul rather than kindle it. Our historical account must show that when blacks were relegated to separate quarters of a big city after Emancipation, the immediate result was not Washington, D.C.'s "Barrytown." Even in a period of naked discrimination, the human spirit bore fruit, and thoroughly ordinary black people again and again created a "Chocolate City" on the middle-class American model and could not have imagined doing otherwise.

Today we assume that in any black community an educational crisis must be in full swing. But that wasn't the case in Bronzeville: truancy rates were no higher than among Chicago's white students, and black students performed scholastically as well as white ones. But today's consensus view of the history of black education sees an unrelieved procession from the substandard segregated schools of the South to the inner-city sinkhole schools in today's headlines.

A history ushering blacks into a sense of true membership in their country must make clear that the execrable inner-city schools Jonathan Kozol loves to describe are products of our own times, not business as usual for blacks. From the late 1800s to the 1950s, several black schools were models of scholarly achievement. Students at Washington, D.C.'s Dunbar High, named for the black poet, often outscored the city's white schools on standardized tests as early as 1899. Schools such as Frederick Douglass in Baltimore, Booker T. Washington in Atlanta, P.S. 91 in Brooklyn, McDonough 35 in New Orleans, and many others operated at a similarly high level.

Dunbar alone produced Charles Drew (discoverer of blood plasma), Edward Brooke (the twentieth century's first black senator), William Hastie (the first black federal judge), and other prominent figures. As Thomas Sowell puts it, the sheer weight of accomplished black people that schools like Dunbar produced "suggests some systematic social process at work, rather than anything as geographically random as outstanding individual ability."

Meanwhile, the top black colleges were also providing students with fine educations. The students at Fisk (my mother's alma mater) were put through their paces in Horace and Livy, and graduate W. E. B. Du Bois went on to write his doctoral thesis in German. A Fisk professor's wife was aghast at the news that Talladega (my aunt's alma mater) in Alabama did not even require Greek and Latin for the bachelor's degree.

In an age when existing social and economic inequalities are so often mistaken as the decrees of immutable destiny, the fact that these schools existed and that blacks excelled in them as a matter of course, can seem incredible: all the more reason that historians need to bring them to life in all their vivid glory for a much larger audience than the ones that academic chroniclers, such as the invaluable Thomas Sowell, have reached. Otherwise, collective black success again gets lost in the cracks of an historiography dedicated to stressing the obstacles and setbacks.

One result of that victim-centered approach is the trendy contention that American education is constitutionally inappropriate to the "African" soul, a view Carter G. Woodson memorably espouses in The Mis-education of the Negro. Don't underestimate the influence of this notion: witness the Ebonics movement or the resonant title of the recent megahit black pop recording "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." The excellent black schools and colleges that actually existed succeeded without Afrocentric curricula. In fact, Dunbar taught Latin into the 1950s, and in the late 1800s black college students often—and famously—took top honors over whites in oratory, and not in the artful slang of "slam poetry," but in literary standard English.

Alone, a photograph of black students in a schoolroom in 1900, with their hair parted down the middle, will make little lasting impression, even with a long explanatory caption. Our new history must present them in ways that encourage thinking beyond the box that constricts us today. To show the power of agency over obstacles, our account must stress that these schools operated on substandard budgets, often with creaky physical plants. To counter the misimpression of many blacks that these schools only catered to a rarefied and light-skinned crème de la crème, we must show that many of these schools educated as many lower-income blacks as more fortunate ones.

Armed with the knowledge that ordinary blacks have been capable of stunning successes in this country despite racism, students of the new black history will then be ready to understand the debate between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington in a new and more inspiring way. Washington has turned into a bogeyman, the archetypal black sellout, his name virtually a curse: I am beginning to lose count of how often I have been called "a Booker T. Washington" by my detractors. His lifetime of dedication to black uplift has been boiled down into a sour parable that pits Washington, a quisling who urged blacks to roll over and tolerate racism and content themselves with manual labor, against nobly defiant Du Bois, the incarnation of black pride. Trouble is, this reduction of Washington to an object lesson in how not to be black deprives us of a role model more useful to us today than Du Bois.

Contrary to the fantasy black radicals nurse (though most seem never to have read more than two sentences he ever wrote), Washington's message was not that blacks should turn the other cheek. Two decades before he ever jostled with Du Bois, he was asserting that of course "there should be no unmanly cowering or stooping to satisfy unreasonable whims of the Southern white man." Washington's chariness about active protest stemmed not from weakness or lack of concern, but from being born a slave in the Deep South and witnessing implacable racism at much closer hand than Du Bois did in his burgherly upbringing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. From that experience, it's little wonder that Washington believed blacks would be better off attaining the bread-and-butter skills necessary to building a solid working-class economic base than fighting what he saw as a Sisyphean battle to seize control of public offices. The parable that fashions Washington into merely a foil for black "authenticity" has his teachings stopping here; but this was only a first step. His fundamental idea was that racism was more likely to abate as a result of concrete black accomplishments than on the basis of abstract spiritual appeals.

Okay, Washington was behind the curve in some ways. Notwithstanding his call for ex-slaves to build an economic base in the South rather than risk the uncertainties of migrating north, blacks who did make the Great Migration found rich opportunities. Meanwhile, the successes of the graduates of schools like Dunbar and Howard discredited his call for blacks to postpone higher education until they had spent decades establishing themselves materially.

Yet meanwhile, Du Bois was urging blacks to nurture a "double consciousness," as much "African" as American. That's one of the central themes of The Souls of Black Folk, and no one has rendered it as artfully as Du Bois before or since. But this ideology, with its call to treat our problems as those of "brown people" throughout the world, had nothing whatever to do with building the great black business districts. For all its grandeur, nothing in Du Bois's philosophy could inspire the concrete glories of a Bronzeville.

When it came to concrete action, Du Bois was more interested in an elite "talented tenth" of educated black people providing "guidance" for the masses, seeking public offices and articulately protesting the barriers to attaining them. For most blacks today, this approach has more appeal than Washington's tack, especially since protest in Du Bois's vein eventually created the civil rights miracle. I myself would rather have had dinner with Du Bois than with Washington. Yet Washington's philosophy was by no means bankrupt: just as he predicted, the trend was indeed for blacks to attain significant offices after translating the financial clout of these districts into political power. While Du Bois's unruffled elitism, with its presumption that black success would be driven by superstars, might raise a measure of democratic skepticism in us today, Washington was trying to show how we could all be agents of our own success—and history has borne him out just as decisively as it has Du Bois.

Deep down, we all know that no amount of sloganeering and posturing can replace concrete accomplishment in inspiring respect. This was Booker T. Washington's message, and it must come through in how we remember him. Too often since the 1960s, blacks have wasted their energies bemoaning racism and passively assuming that it makes black success impossible. This therapeutic approach had nothing to do with building the Binga Bank or Olivet Baptist, and it springs not from Washington but Du Bois, whose driving force, at the end of the day, was his profound indignation that blacks were not allowed to be, essentially, white. And he had a point: our ultimate goal indeed must be that blacks and whites learn the same things, have the same jobs, and cherish the same cultural ideals—that blacks become Americans.

Only when we understand these lessons—that we can all be the agents of our own success and that the striving of ordinary blacks once created vibrant, successful communities—will the "Blacks in Wax" come alive as useful role models to identify with rather than merely to respect, and as figures who can point us in the direction of feeling American in the heart rather than only in the head. Today's tendency to find visceral inspiration only from black rebels like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael follows naturally from the prevailing conception of blacks as eternal expatriates from Africa, loath to embrace the mores of a "foreign" land whose rulers allow only a token few to rise above poverty. But if we understand that for a century in America blacks created communities of achievement, which nourished both solid citizens and figures of spectacular accomplishment, we can accept the idea of becoming American as business as usual for blacks.

Today, the fact that a famous black person did not grow up in poverty is usually treated as a kind of footnote, except in full-length biographies. Yet just as Copernican astronomers' conviction that the earth was the center of the universe blinded them to the import of the countless "eccentricities" in the movements of many stars, the "racism forever" paradigm obscures for us how very many black greats grew up nurtured by the black worlds-within-a-world created with meat-and-potatoes initiative and tenacity. Thurgood Marshall did not just "grow up in Baltimore," blessed from above by preternatural good fortune: he went to the sterling Frederick Douglass High. Gwendolyn Brooks was not just "from Southside Chicago": she was a product of the vibrant black community I have described, nurtured by Bronzeville's literary ferment, and first published in the Defender. For these and countless other bright lights, it took a village, indeed—thriving villages of financially stable "New Negroes," looking forward rather than backward, embracing membership in this nation.

Armed with a revived knowledge of this side of the story, we can recast our understanding of black heroes born in less fortunate circumstances, as well. The leftist skepticism of the power of individual agency constrains black America within the falsehood that history is destiny. But every time we are told that "slavery refuses to fade" (Derrick Bell), that "racism continues as an ideology and a material force within the U.S., providing blacks with no ladder that reaches the top" (Robert Chrisman and Ernest Allen Jr.), or that "slavery has hulled empty a whole race of people with inter-generational efficiency" (Randall Robinson), we are helpless to make sense of the hundreds of blacks who rose from slavery or poverty to transform the world.

For example, when Frederick Douglass escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad, history was no more destiny than it was for the ex-slaves and children of slaves who built Bronzeville. Hardly "hulled empty," Douglass became one of the nineteenth century's most influential theorists of abolitionism and women's suffrage. Booker T. Washington was also born a slave, worked in mines and as a houseboy after Emancipation, and arrived at the new Hampton black college broke and dirty. No "ladder that reaches the top" was in evidence; the year after Washington graduated, the party of Lincoln traded off Reconstruction for the instatement of Rutherford B. Hayes. But Washington adopted the teachings of Hampton's white principal on the worth of manual labor and efficiency and passed them on to thousands of black students as president of Tuskegee Institute. Not just black stories, these are also American stories, in that whites played crucial roles in determining for the better the life paths of both men, as was true for countless other black figures.

To dismiss these stories merely as lightning striking echoes the views of those whites who insisted during Douglass's and Washington's lifetimes that black people were congenitally incapable of anything but the lowliest achievements. Quite simply: we cannot claim that we are a strong people and insist at the same time that none but a handful of us can be expected to thrive under anything but ideal conditions. The idea that chronicling the fate of the underclass is more important than stories of slaves rising to fame and fortune presumes that black Americans will somehow take inspiration from failure. But how can we? Instead we must focus on those who made the best of the worst, and relinquish the notion that we are the world's only people whose evolution is Lamarckian rather than Darwinian.

Yet the notion that a useful black history will inspire us to become American will discomfit many blacks. For us, blackness trumps Americanness; it often takes a certain adjustment for a black person to get used to Europeans processing us as "Americans" more than as "black," since this is not how we process ourselves. Moreover, integration has become a dirty word, from fear that it signals the disappearance of black culture. The new black history must attend to this fear.

The black contribution to American music is a perfect antidote, in its demonstration that while blacks will necessarily become more "white" in an America where interracial harmony reigns, whites in the meantime have already become "blacker." The music that all Americans cherish, sing, and dance to today would not exist if Africans had not been brought to this country.

Itinerant black pianists in the South forged ragtime, with its devilishly infectious syncopation, by imposing African-derived rhythms upon European march forms, and when they brought it north in the 1890s, it took the nation by storm, saturating mainstream popular music. Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is a monument of America's first crossover music. Before the 1890s, the United States had no music this catchy: all the popular tunes Abraham Lincoln knew consisted of marches, jigs, and waltzes. Ragtime evolved into jazz, taken up by whites as swing, and later fused with white folk music to become rock and roll—the direct progenitor of all the contemporary popular music now an American trademark. Meanwhile, the blues singing style that the slaves developed became the standard idiom of "white" singing in America.

Our history must make clear that without African slaves, there would have been no George Gershwin or Richard Rodgers to forge the American musical theater tradition; no swing sound of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, sung to by Frank Sinatra; no Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, or Tori Amos; no white people jamming or feeling the groove.

Many blacks feel keenly that whites should not be let off the hook for the legacies of the racist past, but this impulse, however eminently reasonable, mustn't lock us into a frozen hostility that can't take yes for an answer. And so our history must acknowledge that America has always had a contingent of whites fighting for black dignity.

We mustn't forget that as far back as the late 1700s, the Quakers argued vigorously for the abolition of slavery and invited blacks into their churches, and that starting in the 1830s, William Lloyd Garrison and other white abolitionists often put their lives in danger arguing against slavery, in the sincere belief that it was incompatible with both Christian teachings and the Constitution's appeal to the rights of man. There is nothing of the canny operator in Garrison's call in the first issue of The Liberator that "I am in earnest—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD." Equally sincere was Brooklyn's Henry Ward Beecher, perhaps the nation's most popular preacher, who urged defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act (and, after the Civil War, helped spark the fame of Fisk College's Jubilee Singers by arranging performances for them across the East). After we hear the numbers of slaves whites wrested from Africa, we must hear that many northern states abolished slavery in the late eighteenth century, that in 1837 Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio were together home to 633 abolitionist societies, and that the following year the American Anti-Slavery Society had 250,000 members.

And the abolitionist imperative was strong enough to help motivate the Civil War. Yes, many northerners' support of it stemmed from a pragmatic wariness of economic competition from the South and even a distaste for the increase in the black population that extending slavery into new territories would entail; but the Republican party was founded in equal measure out of a sense that human beings must not be in bondage. And again, though after the war Republicans eventually let Reconstruction slide when issues of power and money came to the fore, they would not even have begun to try to usher black men into high positions across America had their original opposition to slavery been purely self-interested.

Nor must we allow the impression that white indignation over racial injustice stopped with people frozen in daguerreotypes. The following simple fact ought to appear in any black history text: the NAACP was founded by white people (at the founding of the organization, Du Bois, who was appointed editor of The Crisis, was nervously waiting to hear just how he would be included). One searches in vain for any indication that founding white NAACP stalwarts like William English Walling, Joel Springarn, and Mary White Ovington were motivated by anything but a human revulsion at how blacks were treated in their time. Black people growing up since the 1960s have seen a civil rights movement largely dominated by various stripes of black radical. One thing that will help blacks develop a sense of membership in the national fabric is the knowledge that a passionate devotion to helping blacks has been one variation on whiteness—a minority one, but vital—since the very beginning of our republic. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was further proof, passed by the very white government so many now consider black people's implacable enemy.

Finally, black historiography must make clear that the desolation of today's inner cities was the unintended creation of yet more humanitarian attempts by whites to improve the fortunes of blacks. The leading assumption is that inner-city neighborhoods went to ruin because racist whites fled to the suburbs, and workplaces followed them. But this explanation does not hold up. Why would white flight devastate blacks, when, only a few decades earlier, blacks had built up their own cities-within-cities? Why didn't blacks simply move where the work was, when just decades before millions had migrated north to find decently paying jobs? Why did blacks not take the jobs that remained—jobs that immigrants (many often black) easily find—when, a few decades before, blacks were clamoring for any available work as soon as they got to a Bronzeville or a Harlem? And if the problem was, as often thought, that middle-class blacks moved away and deprived the poor of role models, then why did the Lower East Side not sink into anarchy as successful Jews moved uptown?

These are not rhetorical questions; they have a simple answer. In the mid-1960s, white liberals expanded a welfare program that began under the New Deal as a safety net for widows into what we would today call "reparations" for blacks. Under an erroneous assumption that "the system" offered poor blacks no path to advancement, whites created bureaucracies to pay unmarried black mothers to have children and spend their lives on the dole. This was why suddenly the old black business districts became beside the point, why so many blacks stayed put instead of following the jobs, and why, suddenly, starting from the bottom became "unfair," rather than the way life works in a capitalist society.

Once urban blacks learned from white liberal culture that the essence of the Real Black Man is a sense of inner rebellion against the Man, rendering responsibility an option rather than a given, the stage was set for the demise of inner-city America. Solid black communities with rich historical roots turned into dysfunctional slums, under the pressure of a new ideology supported by whites—who believed that they were making up for the wrongs of the past. Today, whites unaware of the harm their "compassion" has done to blacks make up a large and influential segment of America's elite, fiercely attached to what they honestly believe is their commitment to helping black people.

However mistaken, they hardly confirm the Afrocentrist depiction of all whites as malevolent "Ice People" set on doing black people in. And they certainly give no confirmation to the belief that white racism created today's inner-city slums, a belief that leads so many young blacks to reject the mainstream and identify black authenticity with the street.

Forty years have shown that nothing constructive can come from accounts like Jawanza Kunjufu's Lessons from History: A Celebration in Blackness, which "celebrates" us as "Africans" who were the first humans to develop writing and worship a single God (all untrue). Kunjufu gives us a pageant of black American "greats" (who he claims invented the stove, the refrigerator, soap, ink, shampoo, and the third rail), a running indictment of whites, and an ominous piece of advice that "racial unity is more important than community differences." No—the last thing a race brought here in chains needs is history books riddled with untruths that teach black children that they live in hell and should avoid forming their own opinions.

Even the few more sober and detailed sources, such as John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom, don't do what's needed. It is ultimately concerned more with setbacks than victory, leaving the uninformed reader with only the most abstract hope for a better future. Neither Bronzeville nor Dunbar High appears in the index. Booker T. Washington is damned with faint praise. The emergence of inner-city wastelands is blithely traced to white flight. Welfare and affirmative action each get a single passing mention, and blacks' contributions to the performing arts get about three pages out of 500.

Obviously, we cannot rely on the black radical left to write the new black history. More progressive black thinkers have a new responsibility: to compose accessible black history books to get black America back on the track that the early civil rights movement set us on. We need black history textbooks that celebrate how blacks have made the most of their situation in America over the past 400 years. Their message should be: "Here's how"—referring to the horrors of the past as a background to highlight the human resilience that blacks have displayed in the face of these grievous obstacles.

Just at this moment, black America needs to take a long look backward—but above all, at the things that will give us the strength to face forward for good.

 

 

 
It will help black Americans to recall that they have a history that transcends victimization and exclusion.
City Journal Summer 2001.
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