Teaching African American history is challenging. The difficulties arise from four core problems. First, students have very little knowledge about the African American experience. Second, they have been bombarded with misinformation and disinformation. Third, they are indoctrinated to conflate the interests of the U.S. state and the interests of Black people. Therefore, students seek to impose the interpretative frameworks they’ve learned in U.S. history onto the African American sociohistorical experience.
My main challenge is to dislodge simplistic notions like “Black history is U.S. history” and get students to consider W.E.B. Du Bois’ Afrocentric axiom. Writing in 1947, Du Bois casually observed, “Naturally we shall proceed from the point of view of the black folk where we live and work, to the wider world.” In other words, to understand African American history you must center the lived experiences and thoughts and actions of African descended people in the narrative and analysis.
Such an approach seems natural. However, the common sense of Du Bois’ Afrocentric approach belies its complexities and difficulties. Take African American participation in the U.S. War for Independence for instance.
On the one hand, Black history told from the contributionist school emphasizes Black folk who acted in the interest of American society. Crispus Attucks and Salem Poor are two of the more famous such Black folk. Attucks was probably the first person killed during the Boston Massacre and Poor was recognized for his heroism during the Battle of Bunker Hill. They were among the 5,000 or so Black people who fought on the side of the insurgents. While essential, Attucks’ and Poor’s stories also stimulate my recall of Bob Marley’s observation, “Not all that glitters is gold, half the story has never been told.”
The other “half” of this story is much more than 50 percent. It tells the story of the 20,000 self-emancipated Black people who accepted the British offer of freedom expressed in Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation.
The differential in the number of Black folks who fought for White Americans and those who fought with the British disrupts student’s simple notions of American patriotism. Students are programmed to think of Attucks and Poor and those like them as patriots. It’s more difficult for them to locate the second much larger group.
Some see them as British Loyalists. After a difficult dialogue, most come to see them as neither American patriots nor British loyalists. They now view them as human agents acting in their own interests, as patriots in the cause of Black freedom.
To see African Americans as having interests which are not always aligned with those of the U.S. empire is revelatory. It rips apart the veil Du Bois wrote so elegantly of. It begins a process of not “seeing oneself through the eyes of others” but through our own eyes. This is the power of Black history.
The most important thing to help students discover in an African American history class, is the integrity of the Black experience. It’s of the utmost importance that students learn to interrogate the Black experience on its own terms. To engage what Du Bois called the “grim and grinding realities.”
And from the intestines of those realities extract and make coherent the consciousness and culture of our people as they change over time. The reality of the African American experience is that for almost all of our sojourn here we have lived apart, perhaps not due to our choosing, but apart, nonetheless. For 400 years, we have been subjected to a different set of laws, norms, or practices. We have had a distinct experience, and by circumstance and striving have molded ourselves into a distinct people.
That is the simple truth of the Black experience.
We are a distinct people. And from our distinctive experiences we have crafted a distinct consciousness and culture. Most important, our distinctiveness places us in contradiction to the dominant White American historical experience, master narrative, and ethos. Coming to the U.S., for most European descendant people was a move from exploitation, oppression and poverty to greater liberty and opportunity. For African Americans, dragged to the U.S. in chains, our transition from Africa to the U.S. was a move from freedom to various forms of unfreedom.
Our different experience means we must generate different concepts, theories, paradigms and periodization schemas to explain the African American experiences. In U.S. history, the Gilded Age refers a historical period from 1877 to 1900. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner defined it was a time shaped by avaricious “robber barons” who obtained and displayed opulent wealth through fraud and deception, and outright robbery. They machinations accelerated inequality. Twain and Dudley’s framing of that historical period has merit.
A Darwinian racial struggle of the fittest informed U.S. domestic policy and imperialist expansion made racial oppression central to the “Gilded Age’s” ethos. For African Americans, the period was not characterized just by labor exploitation and economic inequality, but by the brutal revocation of recently won civil rights and intense racial terrorism.
To account for the distinctiveness of the Black experience, Rayford Logan replaced the “Gilded Age” concept with the nadir. A nadir connotes “the place or time of greatest depression or degradation.”
We must duplicate Logan’s example. We must replace mystifying concepts, theories, paradigms and periodization schemas with interpretive frameworks that more accurately explain the distinctive African American experience.
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African American studies and history at the University of Illinois and a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is email@example.com.