Introduction: The Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP) and Approaches to Scholarship About/for Black Communities

Article excerpt

  "I think that part of the (the black scholar's) responsibility is to
  help the people to see themselves in a new light, to see themselves
  not primarily as victims of America but as co-creators of the past,
  as co-creators of the present, and as co-creators of a new vision for
  creating the American future. ... Wherever and however possible,
  (scholars) must direct as much of their writing, their speaking (and)
  their teaching ... directly to the life and heart and growth of the
  community. ... The responsibility of black scholars is to return to
  people a higher, deeper, cleaner version of the light that the people
  have given them, for they would have nothing to write their thousand
  monographs about were it not for the people."
  Vincent Harding, "Responsibilities of the Black Scholar to the
  Community" (2)

This issue of Afro-Americans in New York Life and History contains four articles whose primary source research and themes are connected to a public history research initiative called the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). Each piece draws inspiration from the BAAHP's community-based work with Bronx public schools, elected officials, churches and non-profit agencies, or relies heavily on the primary source material the BAAHP has uncovered in its oral history project. The purpose of this introduction, therefore, is to explain the relationship between the BAAHP and these scholarly articles. In the process, there also will be brief discussion of the ways the BAAHP fits into long traditions that serve what Vincent Harding referred to in the above epigraph as, "the life and heart and growth of the community." Such service has been one of the chief hallmarks of African Americans' historical scholarship since at least the late nineteenth century. (3) The guest editors of this issue also contend that the original research and analytical arguments contained in these articles exemplify the types of scholarship that can emerge from a community-university collaborative endeavor such as the BAAHP. Each article highlights voices and subjects that are often overlooked in scholarship on black people in New York and indeed, the larger fields of urban history and cultural anthropology. Such scholarship has emerged, in large part, because of the BAAHP, whose mission and methodology draws much of its direction from the very same people it studies and documents.

"A TREMENDOUS DEMAND FROM PEOPLE:" ORAL HISTORY'S REDEMPTIVE PROPERTIES

The BAAHP is a public history research and education initiative administered by Fordham University's Department of African and African American Studies and the Bronx County Historical Society (BCHS). While these institutions provide the organizational structure for the BAAHP's work, the project's heart and soul is an ongoing community-based oral history project whose lifeblood flows through a dynamic partnership between university trained scholars and over a dozen enthusiastic, engaged individuals - artists, educators, activists, local elected officials, retirees, veterans, and local church members - known to the BAAHP as community researchers. These women and men make possible the BAAHP's research into the roles that black people have played in Bronx history and the ways twentieth century black Bronxites lived, learned, worked, worshiped, built communities and interacted with diverse groups of neighbors. Community researchers identify potential interviewees; they serve as an essential bridge between scholars in the academy and the history that is housed, literally, in the collective memory of the community; and they help shape the project's direction by advising its staff on topics to research and themes to emphasize in programs and exhibits. This partnership between academia and the Bronx community has created a remarkably rich collection of primary sources, which includes close to 250 oral history interviews (over 180 of which have been transcribed) and organization records and personal manuscript collections, all of which specifically underscore the ways people of African descent influenced political, religious, civic, economic and cultural life in New York's northern most borough. …