Reflections on the African American Experience, Social History, and the Resurgence of Conservatism in American Society

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In his introductory essay to this volume, Peter Stearns suggests that conservatism is likely to prevail for a while and that social history in the United States needs some strategy sessions. Indeed, recent controversies over funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian Museum's Enola Gay Exhibition, and the National History Standards, issued by the National Center for History in the Schools, indicate growing resistance to efforts to create a more inclusive history of the United States. These are large issues and a great deal is at stake, but this is also a good moment to reflect on past efforts to broaden the scope of U.S. history.

The struggle for a broader U.S. history is deeply rooted in American immigration, ethnic, labor, and women's history, but it is perhaps most apparent in the field of African American history. Even a cursory consideration of the African American experience is instructive, because it highlights the ongoing connection between the struggle for a fuller history and the fight for a more inclusive, just, and democratic society. A brief examination of the African American experience also suggests the need for a more sensitive treatment of the obstacles that its founders faced, the choices that they made, and the histories that they wrote.(1)

Research on the African American experience emerged in the teeth of slavery, the fall of Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow. The earliest writers, the 19th-century pioneers, confronted the expansion and consolidation of human bondage. As the slavery system moved from the tobacco-growing regions of the upper south to the cotton-producing areas of the deep south, the nation moved away from a tenuous commitment to emancipation following the American Revolution to a new commitment to slavery, as a right guaranteed by the constitution and sanctioned by God and nature. Jurists, scholars, and the clergy not only sanctioned the subordination of blacks as slaves, but justified the disfranchisement of all women, the brutal removal of Native Americans from their land, and the military conquest of Mexican territories.

George Bancroft and other early chroniclers of the nation's history explicitly used religious beliefs and moral judgments to guide their narratives. They defined the enslavement of blacks, the disfranchisement of women, and the conquest of Mexicans and Native Americans as the white man's "manifest destiny." As such, early 19th-century historians excused social injustice and crafted a narrow white male nationalist history of the United States. As George Bancroft put it in his multivolume History of the United States, "Go forth, then, language of Milton and Hampden, language of my country, take possession of the North American continent! Gladden waste places with every tone that has been rightly struck on the English lyre, with every English word that has been spoken well for liberty and for man!"(2)

Understandably, the obstacles to writing and making African American history during the antebellum era might well have caused despair. Yet, a small number of black writers - Robert Benjamin Lewis, William Cooper Nell, James C. Pennington, and Martin R. Delaney among others - rose to the occasion and produced seminal works on the black experience. Much like their white counterparts, these scholars wrote narrative rather than analytical works and emphasized the hand of God in human affairs, but unlike their white counterparts they discerned a divine hand that liberated rather than enslaved African peoples. In his Light and Truth: Collected from the Bible and Ancient and Modern History (1836, 1844), R. B. Lewis hoped to advance "correct knowledge" of both "Colored and Indian people," so that "oppressors shall not consider it an indispensable duty to trample upon the weak and defenseless."(3) J. C. Pennington was even more direct, "God is not only the all-glorious author . . …