African-American Historiography

African-American historiography is, in part, the story of a struggle of a people to be counted as a part of American history. The narrative of American history once excluded the African-American side of things. By disseminating the history and heritage of African Americans, historians document the presence of African Americans alongside whites during the American Revolution, along the frontier, on the front lines of the fighting during the Civil War, in the Spanish American War and throughout World War I. These historians gave African Americans a voice so that they could say, "We were there."

By chronicling African-American history of the 19th and 20th centuries, historians not only set the record straight, they helped African Americans find pride in their many important contributions to the United States and to the world at large. This last point cannot be underestimated. African-American historiography was formed around the idea of "vindicating the race." In every retelling of African-American history, "contributionism" became an important framework for analyzing the experience of the African-American people.

The study of African-American history was first institutionalized in 1915 with Dr. Carter G. Woodson's founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and with The Journal of Negro History, founded by Woodson the following year. Throughout the rest of the 20th century and on into the 21st century, more and more scholars chose to delve into this course of study with each passing year. Several historians added rich and even groundbreaking historical details through their exploratory research into African-American historiography. By the close of the 20th century, just about every major American university offered coursework in the field and African-American history came to be recognized as a line of legitimate academic inquiry.

One of the major obstacles for the African-American historiographer toward the end of the 20th century was the lack of programs for collecting and preserving the primary sources of African-American history artifacts. The field of study and research was in a state of growth. However, the sources on which to base this study and research were not. It was feared that in time, this course of study would stagnate, with nothing left to study, examine or interpret.

The history of individual African-American communities holds the potential for shedding light on the wider story of African Americans as a nation. However, most of these communities do not see the significance of preserving these resources. The inner-city African-American organizations are focused on issues of present-day community survival, rather than on preserving the past. They do not see the point in apportioning any of their limited budgets to this purpose.

Then there is the question of which direction to take in African-American historiography. During the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, historians were preoccupied with describing the negative impact of slavery and segregation on individual African Americans, African-American communities and African-American culture. While these historians could be accused of beating a dead horse over a period of three decades, repeating the same tales of woe ad infinitum, the body of work emanating from this time laid a foundation (both ideological and intellectual) for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. Historians felt that the work they had done brought an end to segregation and the obstacles that had prevented African Americans from taking part in the political, economic and social life of American society. At that point it became necessary to explore the idea of finding a new focus for writings on the experiences of African Americans in the era after the inception of integration.

Some historians wanted to solve this problem by describing the struggle for black freedom in the 20th century as a "Long Movement" that extends over a period of four decades, from the 1930s until the end of the 1970s. Historiographers Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang looked at the major points of this argument in their book, The 'Long Movement' as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies. Cha-Jua and Lang make the argument that black resistance is an internal struggle that exists outside of any true historical context. The title makes reference to vampires, which expresses the authors' idea that just as the vampire is a mythological creature, black resistance is an amorphous topic: a subjective experience that cannot be pinned to historical events and facts.

It is clear that the African-American historiographer has been handed a difficult balancing act. There is the evident history of a unique culture and past that deserves documentation. On the other hand, that history is pregnant with pain and degradation that cries out to be expressed. Any sensitive African-American historian will treat both the actual history and the feeling that resulted from and informs that history with equal care and attention.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Black History and Black Identity: A Call for a New Historiography
W. D. Wright.
Praeger, 2002
Black Mosaic: Essays in Afro-American History and Historiography
Benjamin Quarles.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1988
History and Memory in African-American Culture
Geneviève Fabre; Robert O'Meally.
Oxford University Press, 1994
Critical Reflections on Black History
W. D. Wright.
Praeger, 2002
Disfigured Images: The Historical Assault on Afro-American Women
Patricia Morton.
Praeger, 1991
Carter G. Woodson: Father of Black History
.
Ebony, Vol. 48, No. 4, February 1993
Rayford W. Logan and the Dilemma of the African-American Intellectual
Kenneth Robert Janken.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1993
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