The Gift of Black Folk and the Emancipation of American History

 "Freedmen Voting in New Orleans," engraving, 1867. Photo: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
“Freedmen Voting in New Orleans,” engraving, 1867. Photo: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

“Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warming have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?” — W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Several weeks ago, hours before removing the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a courageous speech at the historic Gallier Hall. The mayor acknowledged the country’s legacy of omitting America’s domestic holocaust–the destruction of Native American nations. He also noted the long tradition of erasing and silencing the nation’s Black past. Indeed, as recounted in Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, for generations following the Civil War, some white historians denounced the Reconstruction period (1863–1877) and purged the national record of America’s slavery — what Foner called “our home-grown crime against humanity.”

Leon Trotsky once noted that “what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.” And yet, that is precisely what took place; the accomplishments of Reconstruction were in fact rewritten and its memory overthrown by white nationalists. Academic historians derided abolitionists, praised the Confederacy, and adorned their books with admiration for Confederate generals and slaveholders. For generations thereafter, the country buried the achievements of the pioneering abolitionists who also helped usher the women’s movement. Meanwhile, the African-American chronicle of slavery to freedom and citizenship was seen by many as a misbegotten adventure.

In place of slavery and Reconstruction, the so-called “Lost Cause” took precedence throughout the former Confederacy. In fact, today Tennessee has more monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and founder of the Klu Klux Klan, than to President Andrew Jackson, a native Tennessean. As Mr. Landrieu noted, in New Orleans too, a city that served as “a port where hundreds of thousands of [black] souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery, of rape, [and] of torture…there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks.” The mayor’s words drew the ire of some in nearby Mississippi, where, according to the New York Times, “More African-American men, women and children were hanged, burned and dismembered per capita” than in any other Southern state.

The anger directed at Mr. Landrieu sheds light on the fact that our national narratives have been morally weighed down by the refusal to accept the centrality of the African-American experience. Fortunately, the nation is slowly making amends to reverse this tradition. One hundred years after Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, a Missouri Republican, proposed a memorial to honor Black soldiers in the Civil War, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. last fall. The presence of the museum on the Mall provides a fitting contrast to the lie that African-American history was not integral to the American story. The museum’s greatest service will be the emancipation of American memory.

Harper’s Weekly, “The Union As It Was; The Lost Cause, Worse than Slavery” (1874) by Thomas Nast. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Harper’s Weekly, “The Union As It Was; The Lost Cause, Worse than Slavery” (1874) by Thomas Nast.
Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

To value African-American history is to validate a politics of knowledge and resistance. Black history, in particular, exposes the poverty of memory and the injustices of a past burdened by white identity politics — one that was predicated on epistemic violence. Like the architects of Confederate monuments, racist historians from the Dunning School used their pens as weapons for knowledge destruction. Hoping to redeem white supremacy, they deployed racial terrorism by omission. This violent erasure is a challenge for today’s historian: how to write the history of a paradox — American freedom as defined by slavery? How should historians reconcile the legacy of the American Revolution, which professed natural rights but overlooked women, and especially Black and Brown persons? For many decades before the Civil Rights Movement, many white academics as well as public historians refused to answer these questions.

But there were a number of countervailing Black voices that protested the silence. As historian Albert Raboteau explained, Black congregations “articulated a theology of history in which they lambasted American Christians for turning Christianity into a clan religion…[and] for worshipping Anglo-Saxonism.” That this criticism stems from the ranks of Black Christians is notable: no other people have been more abused by American history and yet insist more persistently on their rightful place in it. To insist for inclusion in America’s nationalist traditions is to challenge the rhetoric that privileges a melting pot of races without recognizing racism. In that rhetoric, the United States has a message for the world, namely that it should become more like America. But when faced with scrutiny, the center of those narratives cannot hold. Whereas for some America has always been on a progressive track, for Malcolm X the Black past was an “American nightmare.”

As far back as the early decades of the American republic, African-American historians like William Cooper Nell, who wrote The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, were writing to broaden the nation’s historical perspective to integrate Black contributions. For them, slavery was as much a priori to America’s founding as was the Boston massacre. Notable men and women like Maria W. Stewart, William Wells Brown, Martin Delany, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary insisted on this point. At the turn of the twentieth century, journalists, scholars, and historians like Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B Du Bois, and Carter G. Woodson advanced the traditions of their forebears, even creating journals like the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History) and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Some white historians, like Philip Foner and Herbert Aptheker, worked in solidarity with these Black pioneers.

African-American historians took it on themselves to divorce American history from white supremacy. However, no historian, professional or otherwise, did this better than the enslaved men and women who invented the genre of the Slave Narrative. Beyond the modern and often fashionable trope of a history from below, the enslaved reached deep into their intimate experiences with white domination to expose how American freedom had been partly constructed on their backs. The slave narratives subverted the notion that only philosophers could theorize about property and liberty.

Writing as they did, from a position of reconciling their blackness and their Americanness, African-American historians were among the first to bring a uniquely transnational, transcultural, and ultimately global outlook to the American lexicon. As abolitionist Theodore Holly explained in a manifesto, he wanted to add a perspective that he found scarce among white peers: to marshal “the undoubted facts of the history, to cast back the vile aspersions and foul calumnies that have been heaped upon my race for the last four centuries, by our unprincipled oppressors… .” To counter that narrative, he pointed to the achievement of Haitian Revolutionaries who succeeded in overthrowing slavery. In this, Holly sidestepped American provincialism and pointed to the universal significance of the Black liberation struggle.

One in a series of racist posters attacking Radical Republicans on the issue of black suffrage, issued during the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1866. Photo: Library of Congress.
One in a series of racist posters attacking Radical Republicans on the issue of black suffrage, issued during the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1866. Photo: Library of Congress.

Because it has had to confront the tensions between American slavery and American freedom, African-American history has often had to serve as the moral corrective to American memory. It is not a coincidence that, following the Civil Rights Movement, universities acquiesced to the demands for Black studies and ethnic studies, which in turn opened the doors to women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. This important shift finally recognized the project of African-American historians. It often took white liberal scholars leveraging their privilege to enable that leap. If the Black historians of the past emancipated American memory, those who built on their struggle moved to revolutionize American historiography. Pluralism took precedent over a homogenized perspective of Euro-America versus the rest. The juxtaposition between American slavery and American freedom brought forth more scrutiny with penetrating criticism that challenged American exceptionalism.

In other words, no other experience speaks more profoundly to the pursuit of American freedom than that of Black Americans. It is in the pages of W.E.B Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, for example, that one will find the bildungsroman of modern America. The failure of Reconstruction, Du Bois notes, was the “tragedy of American prejudice made flesh.” As African-Americans attempted to emancipate nationhood and citizenship from white supremacy, their effort was stunted by the failure of the white “American mind to grasp its real significance, its national and worldwide implications.” Reconstruction, he adds, did not fail where it was expected to, as some assumed ex-slaves could not in fact exercise citizenship. Rather, it was the inability of many white men to “recognize men as men.” In sum, the entrenched racism of white civil society refused to absorb Black people as equal members of the body politic.

The resurgence of African-American history in the public consciousness in the 1960s made a paradigmatic shift towards recovering the past of many other groups whose stories had been silenced, unheard, untold, and left out of the history books. More than mere inclusion, this recovery of African-American history has enriched our understanding of a society that had always contained multiple perspectives. In the process, we, as a nation, have liberated our many voices to speak from multiple angles.

At its core, the contribution of African-American history is to at once liberate and expand the national conscience, holding the nation to the litmus test of what it professes to value. The story of the strivings of Black souls ensures that America does not forget the nightmares that tormented Martin Luther King’s Dream. Indeed, this task is more urgent today as we are confronted by the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts of Native Americans for self-determination.

If we must genuinely rid ourselves of the debilitating effects of white supremacy, then we must continue to insist, as W.E.B Du Bois did, that the African-American struggle from the slave pen to the ballot box is among the most critical events in US history. Indeed, if there is a “Lost Cause” to be avenged, it is not the Confederacy’s, but that of African-American history, which invites us to reconsider the responsibility of remembrance and of American progress as an unfinished revolution. This, in part, is what W.E.B. Du Bois meant when he asked whether “America would be America without her Negro people?”


Westenley Alcenat

Westenley Alcenat is a scholar, teacher, and academic consultant. His primary focus is the African American protest tradition, political and intellectual thought in the nineteenth century, and the Haitian Revolution's legacy and influence on Black American radicalism. He teaches United States, Atlantic, and Afro-Caribbean history at Fordham University in the Bronx.