Searching for the Proper Place: The Revising of Afro-American History; A Review Essay

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Searching for The Proper Place: The Revising of Afro-American History; A Review Essay

It has been a generation since Afro-American history justly earned its place in the historical profession as a serious field of study. Within that generation several schools of interpretation have developed on everything from slavery and its effects, the Civil Rights Movement, the impact of the Great Migration, and the rise of urban black communities. The acceptance of Afro-American history has contributed toward a reconceptualizing of American history. The rise and predominance of the "New Social History" which seeks to reconstruct the past from the bottom up, that is, telling the histories of those most often ignored by previous narratives (workers, ethnics, blacks, women), owes much to the ways in which historians have gone about reconstructing the African-American presence in America.(2)

However, challenges are being mounted to the field of Afro-American history as it has been written over the past thirty years. That should came as no surprise. The historical profession has always gone through periodic movements to revise its concepts of what went on in the past and in doing so has opened up new avenues for inquiry, research and more accurate renditions of what went before. After all, the emergence of Afro-American History owes much to the shifts of thinking in the profession along with the impact of the political climate (the Civil Rights-Black Power Movements). One could make the case that given the post-civil rights years and the change in the political climate there ought to be a rethinking of some of the interpretations that have evolved over the years. Indeed, that has been the case. In the area of slavery alone there has been movement away from the "community studies" as presented by Herbert Gutman, John Blassingame, and Leslie Owens. Even the sturdy interpretation of Eugene D. Genovese has been called into question. In many ways the movement away from slave community studies is an attempt to understand the interaction and interrelatedness of many different forces on African-Americans in bondage. Further, the slave community studies threaten to became so specialized and insular that a distortive factor is introduced in the re-telling of that tragic era.(3)

But there is also the fact that within Afro-American history there are growing divisions among Black historians over the emphasis that Afrocentrism should play in the field. Simply put, should Africa be first and foremost at the center of study in opposition to Western European history being the focal point? Or, should Afro-American history be integral to the reconceptualizing of all American History with an understanding of African origins and how an African people became, over the passage of time, Afro-Americans? This ongoing debate is in many ways at the core of the reassessment of Afro-American History and is reflective of the changed political climate and the emergence of an enlarged lack middle class as well as the rise within that class of black intellectual criticism of the civil rights establishment in the face of continued deterioration of the urban black communities. It is a debate whose merits and demerits deserve more extensive treatment than can be given here. But it is safe to say that it will be a continuing debate throughout the nineties.(4)

The two books under review here indicate possible directions that the field might be taking. While at first they may seem very far apart as far as the discussion of Afrocentricity is concerned, they nonetheless approach the issues that run through that debate. Clarence Walker's Deromanticizinq Black History would appear to be more to the point while Cheryl Lynn Greenberg's study "Or Does It Explode", which deals with Black Harlem in the Thirties Depression, might well serve as a concrete example of how the new interpretations in Afro-American history could look.(5) Unfortunately both works are flawed, Walker's seriously, Greenberg's less so. …