Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity

By Ron Eyerman | Go to book overview

2
Re-membering and forgetting

Memories of slavery disgrace the race, and race perpetuates memories of slavery. Tocqueville

Four million slaves were liberated at the end of the civil war. The exact figure was 3,953,696 (1860) which represents about 12.6 percent of the total American population and 32 percent of the Southern population (these figures also are from 1860, but there was no dramatic change during the civil war). The free black population in the United States in 1860 was 488,070 and in the South 261,918 (Kolchin 1993:241–42). In the first comprehensive historical account written by a black man, George Washington Williams offered this description: “Here were four million human beings without clothing, shelter, homes, and alas! most of them without names. The galling harness of slavery had been cut off of their weary bodies, and like a worn out beast of burden they stood in their tracks scarcely able to go anywhere”(1882:378). 1

This was written nearly twenty years after the event and is an act of remembrance as much as historical writing. The author was part of a literary mobilization of a new black middle class emerging after the civil war which aimed at countering the image of blacks being put forward by whites, as the “full and complete” integration promised by radical reconstruction gave way to new forms of racial segregation in the South and elsewhere. In addition to this monumental work, which also appeared in a condensed “popular” version, Williams produced an equally monumental history of black soldiers during the civil war, and Sarah Bradford published Harriet, the Moses of Her People (1886), a dramatization of the life of Harriet Tubman, leading black abolitionist. 2 While constantly growing in number, the black reading public was not the prime audience of these and other literary efforts by educated blacks at the time. The prime contemporary audience remained the sympathetic white reader, in need of bolstering in this reactionary period, and later, generations of blacks who

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Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Cultural Trauma *
  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments viii
  • 1 - Cultural Trauma and Collective Memory 1
  • 2 - Re-Membering and Forgetting 23
  • 3 - Out of Africa: the Making of a Collective Identity 58
  • 4 - The Harlem Renaissance and the Heritage of Slavery 89
  • 5 - Memory and Representation 130
  • 6 - Civil Rights and Black Nationalism: the Post-War Generation 174
  • Notes 223
  • References 286
  • Index 299
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