A Living History: Voices of the Past Speak to the Present

By Bennett, Lerone, Jr. | Ebony, February 1991 | Go to article overview

A Living History: Voices of the Past Speak to the Present


Bennett, Lerone, Jr., Ebony


BEFORE confronting us as a spectacle or a celebration, Black history is a challenge and a call.

Somebody's callin' my name. Hush, hush, Somebody's callin' my name.

To understand Black history today is to understand that something or somebody in that history is calling your name. For in and through Black history, the voices of the past speak to us personally, calling us by name, asking us what have we done, what are we doing and what are we prepared to do to ensure that the slaves and activists and martyrs did not dream and die in vain. And if we approach Black history in the spirit of the men and women who made it, we will hear millions of voices, the voices of the slaves and sharecroppers, the voices of Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman, of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, speaking to us, warning us, telling us how they got over and what we must do to overcome.

By all this we must understand that Black history is a perpetual conversation in which men and women speak to one another across the centuries, correcting one another, echoing one another, blending together into a mighty chorus which contrasts and combines different themes. Not only is there a dialogue between the living and the dead in this chorus but there is also a dialogue of the dead in which W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, debates Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman calls to and confirms the conclusions of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell.

This living history, which goes on at all levels in the speech of everyday life, is embodied in the calling and responding of succeeding generations who communicate with each other as they pass and repass the baton in that endless relay race which began with the first revolt on the first slave ships and will not end until America deals with the total challenge of Blackness.

On this level, history is what Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black history, called the "clarified experience" of a people. And to deal with this living history, we must approach it actively and not passively. We must become, as we read and celebrate, slaves and sharecroppers, victims and martyrs, marchers and rebels. We must related these images to the challenges and opportunities of our own lives, or we shall learn nothing and remember nothing.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to wrestle on a personal level with the central insights of the major voices of the Black tradition, who speak to us today, telling us, among other things, that the darkness is light enough and that the God of history helps Black people who help themselves. Since the major figures of that tradition came down the same road we are travelling when the road was harder and the ditches were deeper, their message is prophetically relevant in a time of mounting confusion and doubt. For although theses voices speak in different tones from different vantage points in different centuries, they are virtually unanimous in affirming what is perhaps the central message of our history: excellence in life, work, education and struggle and a continuation of that long Black march which is one of the greatest flights of the human spirit in modern times. And if we hope and intend to save our souls and redeem the pledges of the Black spirit, we must enter into an active dialogue with these and other voices of our tradition.

Needless to say, there are many and conflicting voices in this tradition, but there are recurring themes in several areas:

The Black Past

The achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization. He has supplied the demand for labor of a large area of our country...he has given the nation a poetic stimulus, he has developed the most popular music of the modern era, and he has preserved in its purity the brotherhood taught by Jesus of Nazareth. In his native country, moreover, he produced in the ancient world a civilization contemporaneous with that of the nations of the early Mediterranean, he influenced the cultures then cast in the crucible of time, and he taught the modern world the use of iron by which science and initiative have remade the universe. …

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