Americans Rediscover Pantheon of Black Heroes African-American Studies and a Revival of Black Nationalism Have Brought Historical Figures to Light Series: BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Article excerpt

'IT'S a celebration!" exclaims Vibert White, professor of African-American Studies at the University of Cincinnati. "It's a recognition of the totality of African-American history and its impact on American society."

He's talking about the resurgence in the public mind of black figures, people like the late singer-actor Paul Robeson or the 19th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Many of them once were largely forgotten or even vilified by white society as renegades.

Today their faces - like that of the bull-dogging cowboy Bill Pickett - can be found on postage stamps. They are the heroes of fact-based stage and screen dramas, and of books that admiringly detail their lives. TV programs chronicle their achievements and excesses, like those of Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight champion of the early 1900s who was long the focus of raging race antagonism.

Historians and social observers say such latter-day revisiting of black assertiveness is the product of years of black studies in colleges now bearing fruit, filling a gap in the way history had been taught. The resurgence is also a broader effort to rectify decades of neglect or disdain. Black people want to correct the record, say these observers. They are seeking heroes, and white society wants to acknowledge these heroes and understand them.

"All of a sudden, Booker T. Washington is being revisited by the public," notes Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Josephs University in Philadelphia. And a more striking example would be hard to find, he adds, of how a name from black history can take on a new look. Washington, the great black educator and author of the 19th and early 20th century, has gone from idolization to rejection and neglect - by both blacks and whites - and now back to respect.

"It's a metaphor for how blacks are perceived by whites and how some blacks perceive themselves," says Miller, an authority on African-American life and the history of slavery. "People may know his name but don't know about what's happened to his image and reputation."

Washington, the first black American to be on a postage stamp (in 1940) was the very embodiment of black promise to both races at one time. His message was that black farmers and workers can acquire the skills to help themselves. Blacks were not there, he said, to upset a system, but to earn what is their due.

Most whites liked that idea. "But fairly soon among some blacks, like W. E. DuBois, he became viewed as an accommodator," Miller says, "and eventually he became the personification of the Uncle Tom. He was identified as antiprogress because his 'accommodationism' seemed to be going nowhere. He was seen as acquiescing in Jim Crowism and the horrors of segregation."

That's the prevailing image of Washington through the 1950s and 1960s. But now Washington is taking on a whole new image in the public mind - white and black - Miller says. "People realize he was saying, among other things, that we must be practical as well as political. We must return to our own resources as a means of liberation." Ironically, the black Muslims of today are also saying this, Miller points out.

Many other African-American figures have gone through similar changes of fortune. Black visual artists, kept firmly out of the white mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s, are exhibited at well-known museums. Malcolm X looms again in TV documentaries and a feature film. And a man like Robeson - pilloried in the 1950s as a "Soviet sympathizer" - has become the heroic subject of a one-man show and a play.

"Nothing became Robeson like death in the minds of many people," says Miller, who has written extensively about African-American life. …