Ten Myths, Half-Truths and Misunderstandings about Black History

By Ruffins, Paul; Ruffins, Fath Davis | Black Issues in Higher Education, February 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

Ten Myths, Half-Truths and Misunderstandings about Black History


Ruffins, Paul, Ruffins, Fath Davis, Black Issues in Higher Education


Black history may have seemed "lost, stolen or strayed" at one time, but since then much of the African American past has been rediscovered and reanalyzed.

Unfortunately, this new research hasn't yet filtered down to high schools, and many students and others still base their thinking on the information that existed in 1968 when CBS News produced the film Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed. At that time, many important works on Black history were more than thirty years out of date. For example, W.E.B. DuBois wrote History of the African Slave Trade in 1896 and Black Reconstruction in 1935, and Dr. Lorenzo Green finished The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776 in 1942.

Over the past thirty years, historians, anthropologists, and other scholars such as John Blassingame, Dr. Eugene Genovese and Ira Berlin have revolutionized the study of African American life, history, and culture.

Some facts are indisputable. A few free Africans came to the New World with Columbus. African slaves first arrived in the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean in 1502 and came to what was to become the United States of America in 1619. Over the next 250 years, some African Americans were freed or freed themselves. The U.S. banned the external slave trade in 1808, and states from Maine to Maryland gradually enacted abolition laws.

Unfortunately, some historical questions may never be answered. For example, although estimates range from thirteen million to thirty million, we will probably never know exactly how many people were taken out of Africa during the slave trade because boats and people were counted differently in different African and European languages.

Black Issues presents some of the latest thinking to help educators lay to rest these ten common myths and misconceptions that distort and oversimplify nearly 500 years of African American history.

Myth 1:

The Black Family Structure was Destroyed in Slavery.

This outdated perspective was developed in the early 1900s by a group of racist historians known as the Dunning School Unfortunately, it was adopted by Dr. Edward Franklin Frazier, an African American professor at Howard University, while working on The Negro Family in the United States (1939) Frazier believed that the family problems of African Americans during the 1930s could be explained by the "catastrophe of slavery." In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would join the U.S. Senate eleven years later, based much of his infamous report, The Negro Family in America: The Case for National Action, on Frazier's work.

However, a wealth of new information reveals that earlier conclusions seriously underestimated the strength of the Black family According to Dr. John Hope Franklin, Herbert Gutman's classic book, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976), "successfully challenged the traditional view that slavery virtually destroyed the Afro-American family." Black families were under incredible stress during slavery but they also evolved new structures to meet the crisis Blaming all of the problems of some Black families on the past influence of slavery underestimates contemporary factors such as racism, unemployment and drugs.

Suggested Readings Peter Kolchin's American Slavery, 1619-1877 (1993); Alan Kulikoff's Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake (1986); Theresa Singelton's The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life (1985); Genevieve Fabre and Robert O'Meally's History and Memory of African American Culture (1994); Leland Ferguson's Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African Americans, 1650-1800 (1992); and John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972).

Myth 2:

African Americans were the only people who were ever enslaved in the New World.

Millions of Native Americans were also enslaved, particularly in South America In the American colonies in 1730, nearly 25 percent of the slaves in the Carolinas were Cherokee, Creek, or other Native Americans. …

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