On Anchoring a Generation of Scholars: P. Sterling Stuckey and the Nationalist Persuasion in African American History

Article excerpt

For African American historians and scholars who achieved intellectual maturity during the 1960s, P. Sterling Stuckey's early work was at once challenging and reassuring. I well remember my own first encounter with his scholarship, particularly the extraordinary breadth of his faith in largely ignored historical texts and the elegance of his words found in the eloquent introduction to The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism. (1) I remember, as well, my first reading of his 1971 essay in Amistad 2, "Twilight of Our Past: Reflections on the Origins of Black History." (2) Those of my generation of then-young black historians also read and re-read, and assigned and reassigned, Stuckey's now classic essay, "Through the Prism of Folklore: The Black Ethos in Slavery." (3) The persuasiveness with which he argued that West Africans in North American colonies possessed long memories and a sense of fealty to the distant homelands of their forebears came at a time when black group identity was being buttressed by calls for "Black Power" in the streets, and when new and often daring research agendas were being hammered out in the academy.

While such writings were primarily intended for an academic and scholarly audience, I remember them having an influence in what might be called the people's academy--the study groups and the nationalist and pseudo-nationalist organizations that formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was a member of such a group of young black professionals; "aesop," we called ourselves. Thus it was that many African American street activists knew of Stuckey's writings at the same time that they were about to influence a full generation of scholars.

Stuckey's work emerged at a time when "Black History" as a movement and black historians as actors on behalf of that movement were entering a wider and more complicated realm, where the forces of social and racial integration in the academy confronted the heavy undertow of nationalist, group-specific sensibilities. Stuckey provided that movement with a view of the past that drew upon the intellectual tradition of African people who had studied Black History and wrote of their culture. Most significantly, Stuckey drew much of his intellectual inspiration and ammunition from Sterling Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Paul Robeson. These individuals had never been forgotten in the academic and popular realms of African American history and letters. But when Stuckey re-situated them in the context of the new black historical scholarship, it was as if we had been reminded of the higher purpose of the field--to acknowledge our intellectual forebears. At a time when black society was being buffeted and reshaped by all sorts of changes in the internal dynamics in terms of race, gender, and class dynamics, Professor Stuckey anchored us by reminding us that our discipline had cultural grounding in memory, place, and music.

Professor Stuckey is usually associated with the so-called Nationalist School of African American history. Indeed, this is how his work was first introduced to me, not by a fellow academic historian, but actually by one of my undergraduate students, Paul Kasisi Nakawa, who was emblematic of many black students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He read everything he could lay his hands on relevant to the black cultural discourse, including Harold Cruse, Maulana Ron Karenga, Franz Fanon, George Jackson, and, to be sure, P. Sterling Stuckey. It was Nakawa who told me in 1969 that I needed to read Stuckey. (I had just begun my Ph.D. studies at Rutgers University, but, ironically, Stuckey's writings were not on the syllabus of any of the graduate courses that I took there.) The "Nationalist School" with which Professor Stuckey has been long identified was a genre of historical analysis that emphasized recognition of the centrality of Africa and African cultures to Africans in New World, especially in the United States; that espoused an array of commonly held principles about blackness and identity that found resonance across the African diaspora; and that held on tenaciously to certain ideals about the future of African people. …