In today’s post, historian Stephen G. Hall, Fellow at the National Humanities Center, interviews Mitch Kachun on his new book First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory, which was recently published by Oxford University Press. Kachun is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at Western Michigan University, specializing in African American history, collective memory, and historical writing. He earned a PhD in History from Cornell University; MS in History from Illinois State University; and BA in Anthropology from the Pennsylvania State University. Kachun is a Fulbright Specialist roster member in American Studies, and has awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gilder Lehrman Institute for the Study of United States History, and the United States Department of Education, among others. In addition to First Martyr of Liberty, Kachun is the author of Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 (Massachusetts, 2003); and co-editor of The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel by Julia C. Collins (Oxford, 2006), which was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2007. Kachun’s current research focuses on African American journalist, minister, and lecturer Charles Stewart (1867-1925), who wrote featured columns about his extensive travels for several early twentieth century Black newspapers, usually under the pen-name “Col. J. O. Midnight.”
Stephen G. Hall: Crispus Attucks is an important but elusive historical figure. No scholarly biography exists, and the details of his life are scant. What prompted your interest in him as a historical figure?
Mitch Kachun: I began researching Crispus Attucks in the early 2000s, as I was completing my book, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 (Massachusetts, 2003). A key function of public emancipation celebrations was educational, with Black orators imparting the history of African American people. Every nation needs a story that tells themselves, and others, who they are as a people. The broader society didn’t recognize that Blacks had any history or coherent collective identity, so Black speakers at these celebrations very consciously challenged dismissive mainstream historical narratives. They created an empowering story to bind African Americans together as a people with a rich history, a heritage, and a set of heroes in which they could take pride. They recounted the glories of ancient African empires; the prosperity and stability of early modern West African kingdoms; and the accomplishments of Blacks in America—in science, religion, education, activism, and military service.
In these speeches, I started encountering references to Crispus Attucks, first during the 1840s and even more during the 1850s and 1860s. Black speakers telling the story of their people used Attucks to demonstrate that Blacks had been part of the American nation from the beginning. They revised existing mainstream stories of the American Revolution to include one of their own, presenting Attucks as the first to make the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of the American nation. Yet, as you note, we know almost nothing about Attucks’s life. Most likely, he was born enslaved in Massachusetts in the 1720s, liberated himself around 1750, worked as a sailor and dockworker along the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean, and was killed in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. That’s about all we can say with much confidence. So I began to investigate how Black activists pieced together Attucks’s story. As my research moved into the twentieth century, it intrigued me that so much detail—often conflicting or unsubstantiated detail—was being incorporated into these stories.
Hall: You frame Attucks’s life using memory and commemoration as the operative lenses. How are these two approaches useful in reconstructing his life and importance as a historical figure?
Kachun: I’d say that memory is the operative lens, with commemoration representing one of the many vehicles for constructing a society’s collective memory. In addition to commemorative activities—public celebrations, holidays, monuments, commemorative naming, and the like—I also look at scholarly and popular histories, juvenile biographies, textbooks, art, drama, literature, and popular culture. My approach to studying collective memory is pretty straightforward—I am interested in how public historical narratives are constructed, who does the constructing, and whose interests are served by particular narratives.
Since his death, Crispus Attucks has remained a malleable figure in American memory. With so little documentary evidence about his life, he is a virtual blank slate upon which different people at different times have inscribed a variety of meanings—patriotic martyr; unsavory thug threatening the social order; Uncle Tom who sold out his race for the white society enslaving them; or irrelevant nobody with no historical significance whatsoever. He’s been interpreted variously by George Washington Williams, Carter Woodson, Lerone Bennett, Stokely Carmichael, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cory Booker, Rush Limbaugh, and Luke Cage. While researching and interpreting how those narratives and debates emerged and changed over time, I realized that Attucks, in many ways, embodies African Americans’ efforts to disseminate Black-centered interpretations of history to challenge and revise mainstream narratives that exclude or trivialize African Americans’ role in American history and culture.
Hall: Throughout the study you point to several periods in which Attucks is remembered and unremembered. Could you discuss these historical periods and what factors account for this trend?
Kachun: One thing that fascinated me was that Black activists didn’t incorporate Attucks into their narratives until around 1850—some 80 years after his death. Boston abolitionist William C. Nell was foremost in recovering Attucks and promoting him as the First Martyr of Liberty; Attucks immediately became a frequently used symbol for bolstering Black activists’ arguments for abolition and full citizenship. By the time of emancipation Attucks was widely known, but during Jim Crow he was erased from mainstream histories and popular culture; it was left to African Americans to preserve his memory and his status as an American hero. They did this in many ways—books, newspapers, images, Attucks Day celebrations, Negro History Week programs, and the naming of political clubs, community centers, hotels, theaters, American Legion posts, parks, housing projects and more.
In biographical treatments of Attucks between the 1870s and 1930s many Black writers resorted to wholesale fabrication, inventing an Attucks who was handsome, literate, well-read, one of Boston’s Sons of Liberty, friend of Paul Revere and Sam Adams, a popular Boston orator, and a loyal-hearted American driven by self-determination and love of country. All of this is fabrication or conjecture with no corroboration from historical evidence. But they kept Attucks’s memory alive.
Thanks to Black activists’ and historians’ persistence, Attucks’s presence in public discourse had expanded by the WWII era. As the postwar freedom struggle promoted its integrationist agenda, white Americans were forced to pay attention to Black people’s place in the nation as at no time since Reconstruction. By the 1960s, Attucks became one of the first Blacks to be acknowledged—albeit as a mere token—in American classrooms and textbooks. I could not find a single American history textbook published between the 1880s and 1950s that mentioned Attucks in its coverage of the Boston Massacre. This began to change in the 1960s, and by the 1990s it was hard to find a textbook that did not mention Attucks.
Hall: Given your engagement with Attucks, what makes a historical figure important as a first? What makes him or her memorable? Why do we have the need for heroes and myth making, which are important subtopics in your book?
Kachun: Black abolitionists made Attucks an iconic American hero by presenting him as the first to die in the cause of independence. Most antebellum Black activists strived to assert their fundamental belonging as part of the American nation. As the First Martyr of Liberty, Attucks served this integrationist agenda very effectively. The Attucks that took shape in the 1850s was a careful construction. Though he was likely of mixed African and Native American ancestry, abolitionists presented him as an unequivocally Black man who embodied heroic characteristics—courage, patriotism, integrity, sacrifice. Subsequent Black writers expanded on these attributes, making Attucks assertive yet self-sacrificing, a manly hero with noble principles and an almost Christ-like willingness to die for a larger cause.
For any historical figure to be considered significant, a popular, shared narrative must be constructed to convince people of the person’s valor, patriotism, or whatever is required. People crave simple narratives, with clear heroes and villains. This is one way I distinguish mythic narratives from evidence-based histories. Over a half-century ago Hayden White argued for history written in the ironic mode. History must impose some order and meaning on the past, but that meaning must be contingent and ambiguous; the mythic histories that inhabit the realm of collective memory cannot be contingent or ambiguous—they are constructed to provide empowering stories with clear resolutions. They create myth and reinforce heritage. I find memory studies so fascinating and valuable because approaching the past in this way forces us to interrogate narratives to determine how they are constructed and whose agendas they serve.
Hall: What does the life of Crispus Attucks tell us about our contemporary engagement with the past and its influence on our national legacy, our sense of Americanness and issues of race, class and gender?
Kachun: Attucks’s place in American memory is decidedly mixed. For many he is an American patriot and hero, yet for most he remains unknown or forgotten. Attucks raises questions about why certain figures are accepted so readily in popular conceptions of the national story, while others fail to make a lasting impact. Part of the answer is obvious. For generations, mainstream American narratives systematically excluded Black heroes and accomplishments from the nation’s story. African Americans’ more recent insertion into those narratives has been selective and superficial. Rarely are African Americans presented as serious contributors to the making of American culture; for the most part, they remain peripheral to the dominant Eurocentric narrative. But it’s more complicated than that.
First Martyr of Liberty examines how and why Crispus Attucks has been included in, or excluded from, Americans’ understandings of the Revolution and the nation over the past 250 years. Attucks’s story raises questions about who can claim to be a citizen, a patriot, a hero, an American. Following his story through history and myth illuminates issues surrounding the incorporation of African Americans’ actions, experiences, and perspectives into the mainstream narrative Americans tell themselves, and the world, about the nation’s identity.
Since the last presidential election, Americans have been confronting historical issues more publicly and passionately than ever. White supremacists claim they want to “take our country back”; xenophobes want to keep certain people out of the United States based on religion or culture; neo-confederates have fomented discord over what public monuments represent, and which should be removed, reinterpreted, or replaced. I believe First Martyr of Liberty is very timely, in that it interrogates the process through which popular understandings of history are constructed. We are facing a crisis of historical understanding and national identity, and historians must continue to engage this discourse to help the broader American public appreciate how we have arrived at this juncture and how our understandings of the past take shape. We must play an active role in stimulating informed and civil public discussions about the critical questions of what America means, and how we determine who is a legitimate part of this country and its story.