Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861

Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861

Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861

Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861

Synopsis

As the story of the United States was recorded in pages written by white historians, early-nineteenth-century African American writers faced the task of piecing together a counterhistory: an approach to history that would present both the necessity of and the means for the liberation of the oppressed. In Liberation Historiography, John Ernest demonstrates that African Americans created a body of writing in which the spiritual, the historical, and the political are inextricably connected. Their literature serves not only as historical recovery but also as historical intervention.

Ernest studies various cultural forms including orations, books, pamphlets, autobiographical narratives, and black press articles. He shows how writers such as Martin R. Delany, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs crafted their texts in order to resituate their readers in a newly envisioned community of faith and moral duty. Antebellum African American historical representation, Ernest concludes, was both a reading of source material on black lives and an unreading of white nationalist history through an act of moral imagination.

Excerpt

We pause to think of the Past or dream of the Future and our
Present is already in the Past, our Future in the Present.

The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké

In his 1925 essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” Arthur A. Schomburg characterizes previous publications on African American history as being largely “compendiums of exceptional men and women of African stock” that were “on the whole pathetically over-corrective, ridiculously over-laudatory; it was apologetics turned into biography.” Arguing that “a true historical sense develops slowly and with difficulty under such circumstances” as those faced by earlier students of African American achievement, Schomburg celebrated the fact that, by his day, history had become “less a matter of argument and more a matter of record” (231). But whatever a “true historical sense” might be, its development must still be under way, for it has yet to arrive. Indeed, African American history, like all history, remains as much a matter of argument as a matter of record. One might note that “compendiums of exceptional men and women of African stock” still constitute one of the primary popular genres of African American writing; but beyond the work of recovering and publicizing the lives and achievements of African Americans, which is still necessitated by the relative absence of those achievements in the popular media and public consciousness, approaches to the scholarly “matter of record” itself have been and are still today a “matter of argument.”

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