A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America

A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America

A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America

A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

The civil rights and black power movements expanded popular awareness of the history and culture of African Americans. But, as Stephen Hall notes, African American authors, intellectuals, ministers, and abolitionists had been writing the history of the black experience since the 1800s. With this book, Hall recaptures and reconstructs a rich but largely overlooked tradition of historical writing by African Americans.

Hall charts the origins, meanings, methods, evolution, and maturation of African American historical writing from the period of the Early Republic to the twentieth-century professionalization of the larger field of historical study. He demonstrates how these works borrowed from and engaged with ideological and intellectual constructs from mainstream intellectual movements including the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Realism, and Modernism. Hall also explores the creation of discursive spaces that simultaneously reinforced and offered counternarratives to more mainstream historical discourse. He sheds fresh light on the influence of the African diaspora on the development of historical study. In so doing, he provides a holistic portrait of African American history informed by developments within and outside the African American community.

Excerpt

Not ten years after the end of the Civil War and two years before the formal collapse of Reconstruction, William Wells Brown, fugitive slave and abolitionist, authored one of the earliest race histories of the postbellum period, The Rising Son; or, Antecedents of the Colored Race (1874). No stranger to racial agitation or prognosis, Brown had been an active participant in the antislavery movement. During the controversy over the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, he fled to England to avoid recapture and reenslavement and played an important role in the transatlantic abolitionist community, a closely knit group of black abolitionists who lectured throughout Europe from the 1830s to the beginning of the Civil War. It was no surprise, then, that Brown, as he had done throughout the antebellum period, utilized the power of the pen to right the injustices of the past and present. the rapid-fire publication of The Black Man (1863), a compilation of biographical sketches of prominent men and women of African descent, and The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867), one of the earliest African American histories of black participation in the Civil War, set the stage for Brown’s larger race history, The Rising Son, which provided one of the earliest models for postbellum racial history.

Brown’s use of the word “son” is obviously a play on the word “sun.” Like so many race advocates of his day, Brown wanted to herald the coming of a new day for African Americans. Associating the rising of a son, the offspring of a slave race, with the rising of the sun, the dawn of a new day for the race, suggested untold possibilities that loomed on the horizon for what noted postbellum author and race man William J. Simmons described as a “progressive and rising race.” Less concerned with “the dark night of slavery,” Brown sought to write the history of the race in new terms and from the vantage point of a new race stirred in the cauldron of the Civil War and created in the legislative enactments of the Reconstruction period. This subjective posturing explains Brown’s positioning of his race narrative. His title not only creates a certain perception about the present but also tells us how Brown wanted his readers to think about the African American past. But his prefatory remarks reminded readers that, “After availing myself of all the reliable information obtainable . . .

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