Not Even a Blue Box: Afro-Indian Relations in Black History Textbooks

Article excerpt

In Common with most senior professors I now readily and comfortably concede that I learn as much from my undergraduates as I do from colleagues and from research. When I was a junior professor, of course, I admitted no such thing as I regularly reminded myself that I (replete even surfeit with knowledge) was instructing my students, and under no circumstances should they ever be allowed to even think they were instructing me.

Yet, it was from my excellent students here at Brown--our Admissions Office is the most successful and most efficient bureaucratic part of the University--that I first learned about the Blue Box. Also in common with most senior professors my memory is not what it once was, but I think the Blue Box was first brought to my attention in. a seminar discussion of Women's History in high school textbooks. One of my students pointed out that Women's History was almost always covered, but usually only in the Blue Box, As I looked puzzled, a number of students chimed in to explain that most high school texts on American History were organized around the central theme of the many achievements of white men, but that in a Blue Box on the side of the page women were discussed. I was further informed that green was also a popular color, but that some boxes had no color at all, and were simply firmly ruled off from the main text by heavy black lines. In his article, "Chaffing a Course in Early African-American History," William and Mary Quarterly (1993), Jon Sensbach cites two leading scholars on Native Americans, Daniel Richter and Vine Deloria, Jr., on Natives in United States history. Richter writes, "the hoary 'master narrative' of American history seems distressingly tenacious. Much scholarship remains trapped in what Vine Delorla, Jr. calls the 'cameo' theory of history which "takes a basic manifest destiny ... and lovingly plugs in a few feathers, wooly heads, and sombreros Into the famous events without really changing the story line."

People of color, my students explained, were usually not included in the story line, but just shoved over into the segregated Blue Box. It was therefore possible, they continued, to just read the text and simply ignore the Blue Box as it seldom had any direct connection to the ongoing story. Students took their cue as to how to deal with material in the Blue Box from their teacher. If the teacher worked to integrate it into the course, then they gave it attention, if she ignored it, then so too did they. Students noted that Afro-American History was handled in much the same way. We also discovered that Women's History and Afro-American History were similarly treated in American History College textbooks. I cannot remember just when these early (for me)) discussions around the Blue Box occurred. My best guess is sometime in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

About this same time I was struck by the treatment of Native Americans in Black History texts. These books mostly focused on white/black relations and Native peoples were seldom mentioned. Indians didn't even rate a Blue Box. When discussed at all, Natives were viciously stereotyped. As one whose research focused on the 1700s, I was forcibly struck that so many of these late 20th century stereotypes mirrored those used by early 18th, century colonists. Many scholars using these negative ideas about Natives were either black or non-blacks writing in solidarity with what we then called the Black Struggle. It seemed to me that students of Afro-American History ought to have been especially wary of stereotypes and moreover that instead of simply continuing colonialist lies about Natives should have made an effort to determine the actual relations between red and black peoples. I explored this issue in my "Black over Red: The Image of Native Americans in Black History," Umoja (1977) and feeling a need to address my own complaints examined actual patterns of contact between the two groups in "Black and Native American Relations before 1800," Western Journal of Black Studies (1977). …