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TheAmericanNegroas Historical Outsider,1836-1935 Clarence E. Walker The purpose of this essayis to examine the idealist tradition of Negrohistorical writing which dates back to the second quarter of the nineteenth century and which was ultimately rejected by W.E.B. DuBois in the 1930s.In many waysthis history was no different from the American history being written at the same time by many whites. Indeed, it was very Bancroftian in its analysis ofthe race problem in that it placed great emphasis upon the role ofProvidence as a force of historical causation. Nevertheless, within the context of the blacks' struggle to find a place in American society the idealist historians' view that history could be an instrument of social change had particular significance. Underlying the work of the black idealists was the belief that history could be used to change the prejudicial attitudes surrounding the Negro,that self-conscious elevation of mind and manners would put prejudice to flight. The history that blacks wrote in the nineteenth century was a weapon in their people's struggle against an omnipresent "white supremacist" social order. This phrase, borrowed from George Fredrickson, aptly describes race relations in both ante- and post-bellum America; even after the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the United States continued to be a "white supremacist" state, in fact if not in theory. In nineteenth-century America, as Fredrickson writes, there was a "systematic and self-conscious [effort] to make race or color a qualification for membership in the civil CanadianReviewofAmerican Studies,Volume 17,Number 2, Summer 1986,137-154 138 Clarence E. Walker community." Furthermore, "people of color, however numerous or acculturated they [might] be, [were] treated as permanent aliens or outsiders."1 Although they were treated as "aliens or outsiders," the history that black people wrote indicates that they did not think of themselves as a marginal or peripheral element in American society. They embraced without reservation the ideas embodied in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. These blacks believed that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." If blacks had any criticism of America, they deplored its failure to live up to the ideals proclaimed at its eighteenth· century creation. America's racial failing, to them, was moral and ethical, not structural. The history written in the nineteenth century by Robert Benjamin Lewis, WilliamWellsBrown, Martin R. Delany, William Cooper Nell, James Theodore Holly, James W.C. Pennington, Joseph Wilson and George Washington Williams had a broader purpose than mere popular entertainment. One ofits aims was to correct the widely held belief that "the African race isnotoriously idle and improvident" and not characterized by "reason and order." Also, because ignorance of the black past was not confined solely to whites, these writers hoped that their work would be read in the black community. Finally, a history that showed that black people had a glorious past, it was thought, would encourage American Negroes to acquire "some knowledge of the history of nations" as preparation for the responsibilities of full citizenship. 2 The history that blacks wrote showed that Negroes, regardless of their present status, had in the past been more than hewers of wood and drawers of water. The first history of black people in America, Light and Truth, was written by a man of mixed Negro and Indian parentage named Robert Benjamin Lewisin 1836.In its organization, content and argument this book is a model for understanding the writing of black history up through Carter G. Woodson and exemplified in the work of Brown, Pennington and Williams. Officially titled Light and Truth; Collected from the Bible and Ancient and Modern History, Containing the Universal History of the Colored and the Indian Race,from the Creation of the World to the Present Time, it is paradigmatic for a number of histories which follow the same format. 3 In writing his history Lewis was following a precedent set by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in their pamphlet A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Colored People During the Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793...


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