- Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861
Writing within the debilitating confines of "the racial state" (4) and what Charles Mills terms the "racial contract" (4), antebellum African American historians, according to John Ernest, self-consciously intervened in the theatre of historical writing, demonstrating a dogged determination to deconstruct the misconceptions and misrepresentations of mainstream American historiography. Ernest urges reenvisioning the "theatre of history" to acknowledge the historical authority and authenticity of "a wide range of performances" (36) by African American writers and activists aimed at promoting a liberating application of the past. These antebellum black authors and leaders—David Walker, James W. C. Pennington, James Theodore Holly, Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, Hosea Easton, Frederick Douglass, Henry Garnet, Martin Delany, William Wells Brown, William C. Nell, and Robert Lewis—produced critical historical works and performances that hitherto were either ignored or caricatured as lacking in historical substance. Through this conscious intervention, [End Page 320] Ernest argues, these African Americans inaugurated a tradition of "liberation historiography" directed at liberating blacks from an "other-defined history" and providing them with "agency in a self-determined understanding of history" (18).
Ernest argues strongly and passionately for acknowledging the historical worth of antebellum African American protest literatures and traditions. These writings, he contends, were directed at deconstructing mainstream white supremacist historiography and reversing its debilitating and destructive impacts. In response to a mainstream historiography that either denied the historicity of the black experience or portrayed the experience and history as negative and marginal, African American historians and protest leaders constructed and offered a counter-hegemonic conception of history and community, producing a self-empowered community united by a liberating conception of identity.
With such publications as David Walker's Appeal (1830), William Wells Brown's The Black Man (1863), Narrative (1847), and The Rising Son (1874), William C. Nell's Colored Patriots (1855), Robert Lewis's Light and Truth (1844), and many others, black writers sought to recover and redeem a lost and maligned past. Theirs was an exercise in intellectual defiance, driven largely by a determination to authenticate and validate the African and African American historical experiences and heritage. They challenged the "Bancroftization" (98) of American history, and sought integration of the black experience into the national narrative of history. In the pursuit and actualization of this objective, Ernest argues, black writers and activists produced and performed works/acts of critical historical worth and relevance. These works and performances combined both secular and spiritual values, reflecting the authors' sociohistorical and religious experiences and worldviews. Such a history also offered the basis both for collective moral identity and agency and for the moral indictment of white society.
Fundamentally, underlying the dynamics of antebellum African Americans' quest for historical understanding and community construction, Ernest suggests, was the need to both provide moral authority and inspire moral responsibility that would propel the black community toward social activism. He underlines the following key features of this historiography: it sought to rehabilitate and redeem the African American experience from historical oblivion; wherever possible, it illuminated the contributions of blacks to American history and national development; it corrected and revised the errors and fallacies of mainstream historiography. [End Page 321] This revision entailed reinterpreting existing documents to include the African American experience and establish its authenticity and worth. It was Afrocentric and chauvinistic in its validation of Africa's historical and cultural heritages. Finally, it repositioned and reconceptualized historical debates. This historiography was aimed at reinventing and solidifying a fragmented African American community, empowered and driven by a strong consciousness of moral responsibility and authority for change.
Despite this critical intervention, Ernest contends that antebellum African American historians did not completely transcend the negative features of white supremacist historiography. Paradoxically, even as they criticized white supremacist history, black writers and leaders embraced and subscribed to some of its basic tenets. Thus, instead of completely jettisoning white supremacist historiography, they sought its "liberation." Liberation historiography, therefore, was not...