Whenever we endeavor to write history, and to use historical developments to generate and define the context of contemporary developments, we truly engage in a necessary yet complicated task. The task is necessary because we understand that all present-day circumstances and events find their roots in those preceding them. It follows that identifying and analyzing these historical events allows us to better understand and engage things taking place today.
What makes this task complicated is that people record and analyze history. These people do not exist in a vacuum, but are connected to social classes, privilege (or the lack thereof) and with them, ideological biases and slanted perspectives.These biases and politically loaded perspectives often lead historians (professional and novice) to focus on some events and people at the exclusion of others. Indeed, much of what is called “U.S. history,” is in fact an amalgamation of privileged, wealthy, white,male narratives.
This disturbing realization pushed formally trained and self-taught 19th and 20th century Black intellectuals like J.A. Rogers, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. DuBois, Ellen Watkins Harper, and innumerable others (who would come later) to do groundbreaking research and storytelling to illuminate and give meaning to the Black experience in the United States from the informed perspectives of Black people.
The repeated erasure or misrepresentation of Black perspectives/experiences likewise pushed radical and sympathetic white intellectuals like Howard Zinn for example, to publish books like “A People’s History of the United States,” in which he recalled U.S. history from the perspectives of poor, Black, female, and indigenous people rather than whites with status and privilege. In many cases, Black and some white scholars alike have not only provided alternative historical narratives, but corrected blatantly inaccurate versions. To note that there are numerous examples of this fact is an understatement.
For example, prior to DuBois’ classic “The Black Reconstruction,” mainstream scholars and the public commonly believed that the attempt to politically empower Black people after the Civil War failed completely because newly freed Black folk were ignorant, violent, and “not ready” for the responsibilities of freedom. DuBois convincingly proved that the Reconstruction could boast achievements like public education and a more democratized government. He also proved that Black people played an active and impressive part in their own advancement, contrary to popular belief.
Prior to Herbert Aptheker’s book, “American Slave Revolts,” scholars believed and taught that enslaved Africans were content with the brutality and labor exploitation they regularly faced, and that the institution of chattel slavery was not as inhumane, violent, and oppressive as it actually was. Aptheker destroyed both arguments by documenting widespread reports of violent slave revolts throughout the South. His logic was simple and effective: If Africans were “happy slaves,” and slavery itself was not inhumane, why would enslaved folk secretly organize and use weapons (at great risk to themselves) to kill slave owners and flee their captivity?
This same dynamic also exists in the Diasporan context. For years, mainstream political economists and historians attributed Africa’s poverty and civil woes to African mismanagement and “primitive” intellect and understanding of politics and economics. Guyanese scholar-activist Walter Rodney’s anti-imperialist classic, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” took serious issue with white scholarship on this matter. Rodney demonstrated how European colonialism/imperialism – and its practices of exacerbating local indigenous conflicts, crafting labor and trade agreements unfair to African societies, and robbing the continent of its natural resources at gunpoint – was the true culprit explaining both Africa’s underdevelopment and Europe’s capitalist expansion and political empowerment.
As a graduate student who would later become Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago, Eric Williams also challenged misrepresentative white scholarship on the question of European advancement. Prior to Williams’ masterful book, “Capitalism and Slavery,” white scholars cited Europeans’ superior intellect, assertiveness, technology and business sense as the explanations for Britain’s 17th-19th century wealth and political stature. Williams shattered these pompous claims by explaining how the enslavement of African people led directly to the economic development of British shipping companies, insurance companies, its sugar, cotton and wool industries and even the British industrial revolution itself!
We have discussed how white scholars have misrepresented and attempted to erase the Black experience. We have also noted how white America in general attributes Black failure to the incompetence of Black people without providing any understanding of white supremacy’s role via brutality, enslavement and propaganda.
But our indictment against privileged and biased white scholarship can’t stop there. As if depicting Black folk as ignorant and primitive fools responsible for our own poverty and underdevelopment wasn’t enough, they have also trivialized or omitted (As Rodney and Williams demonstrated) the indispensable role Black people played in global and national wealth in addition to freedom movements in the United States. To hear some traditional white scholars tell it, Black people played minimal roles in the Abolitionist, Reconstruction, Suffrage, Communist, Free Speech, Anti-War, or Feminist (First or Second Wave) Movements in this country!
Case in point: I recently read an otherwise well-written and informative article attempting to connect an impressive current campus movement for inclusion, diversity, safety, and environmental concerns, to the Free Speech Movement started at Berkeley 50 years ago. This claim has some validity, and is well-argued I might add. However in writing his narrative, the author glosses over the overwhelming significance of the Civil Rights Movement, especially the Black student activists (and later white activists) of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This is odd, considering that no other mass social justice movement politicized, mobilized, and organized students, intellectuals, and community folk to challenge oppression during the mid 50s and early 60s to a greater extent.
From the historical records we have available to us, it is safe to say that the Civil Rights Movement radicalized, energized and to some extent, gave birth to and set precedents for the Free Speech Movement and Anti-war Movements in the 60s. This is important to note because both the Free Speech and Anti-war Movements were largely middle-class white student movements. By citing these as the reference points or benchmarks of student activism in the U.S., we ignore the agency of Black students, pastors, menial workers and intellectuals that preceded them. Hence yet again, the Black presence is ignored or trivialized, even by a sympathetic and well-meaning writer. No story of mid-20th century college student activism is complete without mentioning the Black Power and Black Arts & Consciousness Movements (led by Black students, intellectuals and community folk) with its bold demands for Black solidarity, economic development, anti-imperialism. self-defense/self-reliance, Black pride, Black cultural expression, and Black political and artistic perspective and aesthetics.
These social justice and freedom movements radicalized college students of every stripe, and led to a critique of western capitalist education, calling for colleges to prepare students to empower and liberate their communities beyond the college campus, and to be more inclusive and democratic. This in turn led to the creation of Black Studies Departments around the country, which inspired women, Latinos, and other ethnic and marginalized groups to follow suit.
If we are going to tell the story, tell it accurately. Talk about the indispensable significance of Black resistance, ingenuity and struggle, and how it politicized and energized other oppressed or neglected American citizens to take up their own struggles for expression, dignity and freedom. No matter how you slice it, Black people have always been the “radical conscience” of the United States. More than anyone, WE, this nation’s most despised, rejected and oppressed, have always been the people to call America out for refusing to practice what it preached. The shameful display of our suffering and brutality in an effort to realize rights and privileges denied us by a nation we built has created the blueprint for white feminists, the gay community, and countless other ethnic groups, oppressed people and movements. We are not arrogant or myopic enough to believe we are the only examples of resistance and social justice; And yet we tire of being a footnote in the history of this country and the world. And it is a damn shame that as we approach year 2015, with a Black president and all, BLACK PEOPLE ARE STILL AMERICA’S BEST KEPT SECRET!
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he published “The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook,” a leadership and organizing manual for Black Student Unions on college campuses. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, Huffington Post Live, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Currently, he lives in New York City and in addition to speaking and writing, provides consultation in the areas of activism and community organizing.