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TheCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume 11, No. 2, Fall 1980 TheDevelopment of BlackHistorical Studies in American Higher Education There is so much to write about To sing about, to shout about In the Negro race! On each page of history America sees my faceOn each page of history We leave a shining traceOn each page of history My race! My race! My race! William L. Van De burg From Langston Hughes' "A Ballad of Negro History (So Much to Write About)" Theorigins of Black Historical Studies cannot be defined in terms of exact date and place of founding. The character of early explorations into the blackpast have much more to do with the spirit and intellectual needs of theAfro-American community than with specific names and affiliations of a formal organizing leadership or an individual "prime mover." Common to all peoples, the deep-seated need to define oneself and one's situation interms of a "useable past" has moved black Americans to seek out and to assemblethe various components of an historical tradition. 176 William L. Van Deburg Despite laws which discouraged literacy and fostered a social atmosphere inimicalto self esteem, black slaves sought to uncover and transmit knowledge of their common history and culture. In the covert "classrooms" of field cabin and "hush-harbor," bondsmen acquired knowledge which negated th~ influence of their masters' allegations of black inferiority. Slaves who experienced an early separation from parents often found it difficult evento ascertain their date of birth, but a well-placed question from an inquiring mind could yield a surprising quantity of useful information. As a slavein Maryland, Frederick Douglass took this approach to uncovering hisheritage. Through witnessing numerous acts of plantation brutality young Douglass was led to inquire into the origin and nature of slavery. As he later wrote: "The very first mental effort that I now remember on my part, was an attempt to solve the mystery, Why am I a slave?" Since his queries as to why some people were slaves and others masters were put to children only a little older and better informed than himself, the youth did not solve his problems easily. He was told that "God, up in the sky" had made all things, that blacks were created to be servants of white masters, and that God was good and knew what was best for all of his creatures. Since these explanations conflicted with personally-held "notions of goodness," Douglass continued his search for "historical causation." By questioning older members of the slave community, he discovered that several could detail the process of enslavement in Africa. Armed with this new data, the seven-year-old chattel concluded that it was "not color, but crime, not God, but man" which afforded the true explanation of the origins of black bondage. After his release from the "appalling darkness" of historical ignorance Douglass contemplated the racial history which he had discovered. As he wrote inhis autobiography, this new historical insight filled him with a "burning hatred of slavery" while it increased his emotional suffering. But, it was "knowledge quite worth possessing." 1 In a somewhat more formal manner, the antebellum free black community also sought to probe the origins of black history. While such projects were sometimes aided by the resources and interests of liberal-minded whites, most of the early efforts to write about and to preserve a black past can be traced to Afro-American sources. Spokesmen for human rights and freedom such as David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, and Alexander Crummell infused abolitionist circles with a "sense of history" as they recounted the historical outlines of racial oppression and black resistance. In "An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America" delivered to the National Negro Convention in 1843,Garnet proclaimed that it should "no lo.ngerbea debateable question, whether it is better to choose LIBERTY or DEATH!" After declaring that it would be more noble for oppressed blacks to "die freemen, than live to be slaves," the black minister supported his position through references to the "patriotic'' Nat Turner, the "brave hero" Toussaint L'Ouverture, the "immortal" Joseph Cinque, that "bright star of freedom" BlackHistorical Studies 177 Madison Washington...


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